Authorities in the Dominican Republic have rounded up thousands of Haitian migrants – and anyone who looks like they are from Haiti – and deported them to a country under control of deadly gang violence and instability, proponents say.

The forced removals, which human rights groups say have escalated this month, have sparked international criticism and calls for restraint amid reports of deportations of unaccompanied children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people.

In the Dominican Republic, a majority of the population identifies as mixed race, while neighboring Haiti has a predominantly black population. This has led to allegations that xenophobia and racism are behind the deportations, part of a wider trend of anti-Haitian discrimination in the Dominican Republic.

Some deportees have never set foot in Haiti, which suffers from increasing hunger, extreme poverty and a outbreak of cholera, in addition to increasing violence. The country also lacks the state institutions needed to handle the influx of migrants, experts say.

William Charpantier, coordinator of MENAMIRD, a national roundtable conference for migrants and refugees in the Dominican Republic, said Dominican police and armed forces detain Haitians in the streets, as well as “anyone who looks like Haitians.”

More than 20,000 people were deported this month in a nine-day period, according to Charpantier, including some Dominican citizens of Haitian descent.

An official source with knowledge of the matter told Al Jazeera that if the current rate of deportations continues, about 40,000 people will be sent from the Dominican Republic to Haiti in November. That’s on top of the 60,000 evicted in recent months, says the source, who asked for anonymity to speak freely.

UNICEF said an estimated 1,800 unaccompanied minors have been deported this year alone, a number the Dominican Republic denies. UNICEF is working with partner organizations on the Haitian border to receive the children.

“These deportations have resulted in the separation of families. People with valid documents have been deported, people born here in the Dominican Republic have been deported,” Charpantier told Al Jazeera.

“These are not deportations. It is persecution based on race.”

History of Migration

The accelerated deportations come after decades of fraught relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share a roughly 400 km (248 mi) border on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Currently, about 500,000 Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, a country of 11 million people. They mainly work in the Dominican agricultural sector, but also in the construction and service industries.

Many have been in the country for years, when Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic began en masse after the American occupation of Haiti in 1915.

“They needed workers on the plantations to do the dirty work that the Dominicans didn’t want to do because wages were low and conditions were appalling,” said Georges Fouron, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook specializing in immigrant and Haiti identities.

While the Dominican economy still relies on Haitian labor, Fouron explained that the long-standing fear mongering surrounding the “Haitianization” of Dominican society continues. In the past, those fears led to violence: a massacre in 1937 under the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo killed thousands of Haitians along the border.

With Haiti facing a crisis situation, “the fear is that there will be an overflow of the gangs and all this activity going on in Haiti,” Fouron told Al Jazeera. He predicts that “it will amplify rather than diminish these negative feelings against Haitians.”

Haiti has experienced months of escalating gang violence following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. The political process is paralyzed, most state institutions are not functioning and insecurity plagues almost all aspects of daily life, especially in the capital Port-au-Prince.

‘There is no way [the deportees] can survive in Haiti. Many of them barely speak Haitian Creole. They are not familiar with the social reality of Haiti, so they are in limbo, and what do they do after a while? They’re stabbing back,” Fouron said.

Bridget Wooding, director of OBMICA, a think tank in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, said the Dominican Republic has historically used deportations to control migration “in the absence of a functional regularization plan,” which would create avenues for migrants to acquire legal money . residence.

Attempts in recent years to regularize the migration status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic have stalled, Wooding explains. About 200,000 people who lost their legal status were made vulnerable to deportation.

“What seems to be happening is a revolving door situation where people who are deported come back into the country because it is clear that somehow the Dominican economy needs Haitian migrants to work,” she told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, with Dominican President Luis Abinader seeking re-election in 2024, Wooding believes Haitians are being “instrumentalized” for political gain, portrayed as an “enemy next door”.

“They’re between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “On the one hand, it seems that the Dominican Republic does not want them. On the other hand, it is very, very difficult for them to return to their original communities because of the gang violence in Haiti, because of the economic situation and so on.”

People stand in front of a migration shelter in Santo Domingo
People stand outside a migration center in Santo Domingo trying to obtain information about detained relatives or employees on November 15, 2022 [Raul Asencio/Courtesy by Listin Diario/via Reuters]

International Criticism

In early November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged all countries to suspend any return to Haiti because of the “devastating humanitarian and security crisis” in the country.

Days later, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk specifically mentioned the Dominican Republic in another call to stop the deportations. “I also call on the authorities of the Dominican Republic to step up their efforts to prevent xenophobia, discrimination and related forms of intolerance based on national, racial or ethnic origin or immigration status,” Turk said.

Former Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph has criticized the Dominican government, calling the deportations “inhumane” and “discriminatory”. The US meanwhile issued a warning this month, travelers warned they could face “increased interaction with Dominican authorities, especially for dark-skinned American citizens and American citizens of African descent.”

The US embassy in Santo Domingo said Americans reported being “delayed, detained or subject to enhanced questioning at ports of entry and in other meetings with immigration officials based on their skin color” in recent months.

“There are reports of detainees being held in overcrowded detention centers, with no opportunity to challenge their detention and no access to food or toilets, sometimes for days at a time, before being released or deported to Haiti,” it added.

But the Dominican government has rejected the recent criticism, saying it has the right to determine its border policy in accordance with the country’s own constitution and with international law. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports this in a statement on Sunday called the US allegations “baseless”.

The crisis in Haiti has “serious consequences” for Dominican national security and Haitian migrants are straining local resources, the ministry said. “The Dominican Republic has been forced to deport a large number of Haitian migrants who no longer tolerate the situation in that country and who are overwhelming Dominican capabilities. The Dominican Republic cannot take it anymore.”

‘Stop the deportations’

Dominican President Abinader also appeared to be doubling down last week when he pledged to increase deportations, as reported by The Associated Press and other media outlets. The Abinader government is also working on it build a wall on the Dominican border with Haiti.

The Dominican Foreign Ministry and the country’s mission to the UN have not responded to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.

According to Al Jazeera’s official source, in recent months, Dominican authorities have detained women for deportation outside hospitals, or taken women and children in early morning searches. Some people were not given a chance to dress before being taken to a deportation point.

“Deport enforcement during the past month is four times higher than the normal number of deportations,” the source said.

Meanwhile, MENAMIRD’s Charpantier appealed to Dominican authorities to halt the removals. “What we are asking – demanding – from the government is to suspend deportations and to respect human rights,” he said.

“The way they do the deportations is by identifying black people. They can control the borders, but in the country they cannot continue to prosecute and arrest black immigrants.”

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