New migrant rules spur crisis along Haitian-Dominican border

In this Aug. 4, 2015 photo, Dominican Republic soldiers and civilians stand at the gate that separates the D.R. from in Malpasse Haiti. After the D.R.'s June 17 deadline to apply for legal residency under a new program to organize the flow of migrants across the border from Haiti, more than 288,000 people applied. So far about 25,000 have received their documents while another 40,000 have been approved. The Dominican government says 66,000 people have returned to Haiti since the deadline.
In this Aug. 4, 2015 photo, Dominican Republic soldiers and civilians stand at the gate that separates the D.R. from in Malpasse Haiti. After the D.R.'s June 17 deadline to apply for legal residency under a new program to organize the flow of migrants across the border from Haiti, more than 288,000 people applied. So far about 25,000 have received their documents while another 40,000 have been approved. The Dominican government says 66,000 people have returned to Haiti since the deadline. AP

The makeshift shacks made from cardboard, clothes and tree branches struggle to stand upright under the gusty, dry winds that bring in the dust clouds like clockwork every afternoon.

In the foreground of the Pak Kado camp, Dominican merengue songs play over the suffering cries of a 3-day old baby boy, barking from a scrawny dog and Spanish chatter from a group of boys as they hold up kites made of sticks and black shopping bags.

This is all part of a new community of some 700-plus residents who for months have called an arid plot of land along the Haitian-Dominican border home. But it is more like a purgatory, a place to pass the time while government leaders decide their fate.

Haitian migrants fleeing tightened immigration rules in the Dominican Republic take refuge along the border in migrant camps made of flimsy tents and very little access to basic daily necessities. Video by Jacqueline Charles / Miami Herald staff

In recent months, changes in citizenship and immigration laws in the neighboring Dominican Republic where many lived for decades, have put hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent at risk for mass deportations — and, for many, a dire existence.

“If we had something in our hands, we wouldn’t be sitting here every morning, every afternoon, eating dust,” said Liphèt Oriol, who arrived in the camp about six weeks ago after he was forced to flee the Dominican Republic. “We are victims of a lack of leadership.”

The limbo-life on the border of Anse-à-Pitres, which sits on Haitian soil, is extreme yet far safer than life in the Dominican Republic where migrants say they were chased out by antihaitianismo, a climate of fear and racism expressed not only by authorities, but by Dominican citizens, employers, even neighbors.

On an almost daily basis, they say, Dominicans reminded them of El Corte, the 1937 massacre where tens of thousands of Haitians were executed by Dominican soldiers in a government-sponsored genocide.

“If you went to the store to buy machetes, there were none to buy,” said Oriol, 60, recalling his decision to return to Haiti and leave everything behind in Las Mercedes after 22 years. “They would be filing them and would declare that, ‘All of the Haitians who don’t want to leave, we are going to slice them up with rage.’”

In recent months, thousands of Haitians — estimates of their numbers vary between 19,000 and 66,000 — have crossed the border after tightened immigration rules revoked the citizenship of an estimated 300,000 Dominicans of Haitian origin, and put tens of thousands of Haitian migrants and other undocumented people at risk of expulsion. An Organization of American States mission that recently visited Haiti and the Dominican Republic said the real figure of those fleeing to Haiti remains unknown.

On Aug. 1, a 45-day period for undocumented immigrants who registered their status in the country to submit finalized paperwork expired. Six days later, the Dominican government announced formal deportations had resumed.

“The deadlines have passed,” Dominican Foreign Minister Andrés Navarro told reporters, defending the controversial new rules. The new immigration policy and its enforcement, Navarro has said, aren’t based on anti-Haitian sentiment, but the need to control an influx of Haitians crossing into Dominican territory in search of work.

The Obama administration, criticized for being silent on the issue, responded by urging the Dominican government “to avoid mass deportations.” Haiti, meanwhile, has continued to criticize the repatriations while insisting on the need for a new agreement between both nations.

“When we ask for a protocol, it’s not to block the Dominicans” from deporting Haitians, said Haitian Foreign Minister Lener Renauld. “We would like to have an agreement on how the people are arriving at the border.”

And while there is not yet a mass migration crisis at the border, the International Organization for Migration, which has been monitoring the camps’ emergence, is concerned about returning migrants getting stranded in remote locations such as Anse-à-Pitres and the impact it could have on the surrounding communities.

“We are very concerned that a massive influx of people at the border may become the nucleus of new large informal settlements,” said Fabien Sambussy, IOM’s camp manager. “One of the solutions is to accompany them in their reintegration into host communities.”

Even before the resumption of deportations, concerns were already deepening among migrant advocates of a humanitarian crisis along the porous 224-mile border.

While some migrants returned to their home communities, hundreds have settled in this drought-parched, southeastern town on the edge of nowhere, west of Pedernales where a shallow river separates the two squalid camps from Dominican territory. The makeshift camps are reminiscent of the tent cities that emerged in Haiti after the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, except there are no porta-potties or daily aid distributions.

The migrant camps have come to illustrate the brewing battle between two nations sharing one island — and some say, the failure of the Haitian state.

“If we can’t help reintegrate 200 or so families, what will we do if they grow to a thousand?” said the Rev. Lissaint Antoine during a recent visit to the camp.

Lissaint’s Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Organization (Service Jésuite aux Migrants/Solidarite Fwontalye) in Haiti, has been receiving migrants on the border, and like many, he fears the situation will only worsen.

If Anse-à-Pitres is popular among some migrants, it is because of its proximity to the Dominican Republic, a pebble’s throw across the nearby river. Until recently, migrants crossed the river for work. But all that ended 12 days ago when plainclothes Dominican soldiers, patrolling the river’s banks, arrested five men heading to work at a farm on other side.

“They immediately arrested them and put them somewhere. We don’t know if they are going to release them tomorrow or day after,” said Samuel Justin, 26, who spent 10 years in the Dominican Republic.

Justin and others say soldiers routinely harass them, even while they are on Haitian soil. They point their guns and say, “‘Don’t you cross over.’ They simulate as if they are going to shoot us,” he said.

Justin, who says he was deported to Haiti by Dominican immigration, said he has no plans to ever return to the Dominican Republic.

“I don’t have the mindset,” he said. “There is a war happening.”

Until recently, migrants at Tete-a-l’eau, located 12 miles from camp Pak Kado, also crisscrossed the border, climbing a steep incline from the caverns of a mountain and crossing into the Dominican Republic on foot after an hour’s walk in the scorching heat. The camp straddles the same river Justin and his fellow migrants have come to rely on.

The migrants’ presence on the water table has become a source of concern for both Dominican and Haitian authorities who fear the river will become contaminated with water-borne diseases.

But all they have, the migrants say, is the fresh water.

“We are living under a constant state of emergency,” said Pierre Elie Zilma, 46, who returned to Haiti three months ago after 21 years in nearby Agua Negra in the Dominican Republic where he made a living sharecropping. “Illness is beating us down. Hunger is killing us. We are living a stark existence; we have nothing.”

Like others in the camp, Zilma said he returned to Haiti under pressure by Dominicans and at the behest of President Michel Martelly, whom he said appealed “for all Haitians to return home.” Martelly has not called for Haitians to return, but Dominican ultra-nationalists have pushed it as part of an anti-Haitian radio campaign.

“Dominican bandits then started to put pressure, and say ‘those who remain, if you don’t leave, we will kill them,’” Zilma said.

Since his arrival, Zilma said there have been a few cameos by government officials, including first lady Sophia Martelly.

“But no one is looking out for us here,” he said.

Arista Joseph, 36, who returned to Haiti with his three Dominican-born children, ages 2 to 7, said he can’t say it was Dominican officials who chased him out. But they also didn’t make it easy to stay with onerous paperwork for him to normalize his status.

“The way I was working, it was as if I was a slave,” Joseph said, recalling times when the employer at his construction company didn’t pay him. “It’s the Dominican people, those who are working with the authorities, who say they will not give Haitians documents because they don’t want to have Haitians in their nation.”

Two days before Haiti’s chaotic vote to restore parliament, Martelly, campaigning on behalf of his candidates running for the Senate and lower Chamber of Deputies, told a crowd in Port-au-Prince, "They say 'Martelly can't handle the Santo Domingo problem. The Santo Domingo problem didn't just start yesterday. All the people they are sending back, am I the one who sent them to Santo Domingo?"

Such comments, said Antoine, the priest, show the insensitivity of a certain segment of Haitian society.

“They don’t have any meaning for the elite of the country. They went and lived in exclusion. They returned, and their situation is worse,” Antoine said. “True, resources are limited in Haiti, there isn’t a lot of money. But the amount of money that’s being wasted on electoral campaigns, festivals on the Champ de Mars and artists’ invitations, can’t that instead be used to help these people?”

That requires political will, Antoine concedes.

Recently trucks came into the park and tore down some of the houses inside Tete-a-l’eau. The departmental representative, migrants said, offered them the equivalent of $18 to leave. Instead of transporting them back to their communities, the migrants were dropped off on the side of the road and they quickly returned.

While Antoine called the episode “a fiasco,” government officials have quietly defended the relocation efforts saying they don’t want to create another post-earthquake encampment situation either in the town of Anse-à-Pitres or along its borders. As a result, 16 of 96 families in Tete-a-l’eau have been relocated, tents and aid distributions have been discouraged and consideration is being given to how best to reintegrate residents — not all of whom the government believes are returning migrants.

Pak Kado’s landlord Demonstern Jack has also asked for his land back. Months ago, Jack extended his hospitality to the migrants, who include his brother Felix, who also left the Dominican Republic. Since the flimsy shacks were built, Jack said he’s been unable to plant corn, his only source of income.

“Not so much as a ‘Thank you,’ from the government for what I have done,” Jack said.

The migrants say they know time is running out.

Some, such as Justin, are waiting to see what the Haitian government does. Roselaure Gaetan, 34, and others like her, would like to return home but can’t. The mother of six, all born on Dominican soil, says she is worse off today than when she left her rural southeastern Haitian town 17 years earlier.

“Dust is the only thing you are eating, catching illnesses,” she said. “Since this morning the children are crying, ‘Mama, Mama,’ and you have nothing to give them. You can’t even give them [cheap local fried food] to eat. So what do you do? All you can do is just stand there.”

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