The Other Refugee Crisis

By France François (originally for Ebony)

Yanique’s Dominican neighbors, the same people she had lived and worked side by side with for decades, pounded on her door in the middle of the night chanting violent demands for her to leave the country. Pregnant and terrified, Yanique grabbed all that she could carry as she ran out of the back door. She left town in the dead of the night, hidden in the back of a pickup truck. The following morning, she found herself standing amidst a dusty camp made up of makeshift tents cobbled together with tarp, plastic and tin. When all that she had lost suddenly hit her, she dissolved into a panic attack. Her twins were delivered stillborn three days later.

In the remote Haitian border town of Anse-à-Pitre, two of the many tent camps that have sprouted up since June hold almost 2,000 of the 63,000 Haitians and Dominicans who fled the Dominican Republic. Many left with only the clothes on their backs. The ongoing reports of human rights abuses, mob violence and discrimination against Black people in the Dominican Republic have fueled their fear of being persecuted based on race and ethnicity. Having fled the DR, these people can be considered refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. An hour away from Florida, this is the other refugee crisis the world has forgotten.
For decades, the Dominican government and Dominican sugar plantations with ties to the U.S. systematically imported Haitians to work in the sugarcane plantations. These Haitian cane-cutters lived in remote areas called bateyes, often with no access to running water, electricity, social services or legal representation.
What should have been seasonal work turned into a permanent state of indentured servitude for many. Earning $3.34 for a 12-hour-day on the plantations, few were ever able to buy safe passage back to Haiti. Thus, many married and gave birth to children (and now grandchildren) in the Dominican Republic. Dominican hospitals would routinely refuse to issue them birth certificates. Thus, the remoteness of the bateyes, combined with the discrimination their descendants faced, ensured that few of those descendants possessed government IDs.
Prior to 2013, those children—born in the Dominican Republic—were simply considered Dominicans per the Dominican Constitution. But a court ruling by the DR’s court suddenly sent Dominicans of Haitian descent into limbo. The court ruled to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship as far back as 1929. The DR had finished exploiting Haitians for cheap labor and now decided to cleanse the country of them and their descendants.
Making the situation even more dire, the Haitian Constitution did not allow for dual citizenship, making it impossible for a person who acquired Dominican nationality at birth to also be a Haitian citizen. With the stroke of a pen, over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent found themselves stateless.
The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report describes the consequences of being stateless in the DR: “Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent who lacked citizenship or identity documents faced obstacles traveling both within and outside the country… cannot obtain national identification cards (cedulas) or voting cards… had limited access to formal-sector jobs, public education, marriage and birth registration, formal economic services such as banks and loans, access to courts and judicial procedures, and ownership of land or property.” Basically, a stateless person does not legally exist.
Armed with weapons and training by the United States, the Dominican military, border control and vigilante groups threaten, intimidate and round up anyone who “looks Haitian,” whether they have their documents or not. The government has even resorted to asking people to turn in their neighbors.  
Although the DR has not initiated the mass bombing campaigns of the Assad regime, its history of state-sponsored terror and genocide is no less grave. The people who have fled the DR have a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on their race or ethnicity; they have little recourse for help or protection. They are, by definition, refugees, and should have the same rights extended to them as other vulnerable people around the world.
As the Syrian refugee crisis has left us all grappling with our own humanity and capacity for charity, the plight of other marginalized people should not be ignored. “The [Syrian] refugee crisis is not just a European problem; it’s a world problem, and we have obligations,” President Barack Obama said Friday. Similarly, the crisis in the DR is not a solely the Dominican Republic’s problem, or even Haiti’s. These people are Black, poor and stateless.
They are the world’s problem and we have an obligation to help them.
France François is the Co-Coordinator of @Rights4ALLinDR. Follow her on Twitter @Frenchieglobal.

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