Haiti: Stateless People Trapped in Poverty

New York – Pregnant women and young children, many stripped of their Dominican citizenship before being pushed across the border into Haiti, are living in deplorable conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. They are among thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent who, since mid-2015, have been forced to leave the country of their birth, including through abusive summary deportations by the Dominican government.

“Not only have many been deprived of their right to nationality, they are not getting the assistance they so desperately need,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Neither the Haitian nor the Dominican government is helping some of the most vulnerable undocumented people.”

As of November 3, 2016, almost 150,000 Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent have entered Haiti since mid-2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

After a court ruling in 2013 that retroactively stripped tens of thousands of people of Dominican citizenship, the government paused deportations while it worked to mitigate that ruling’s impact and register people with irregular migration status. Those registration efforts were badly flawed, but the Dominican government resumed deportations to Haiti in July 2015. Although some deportees were migrants without valid claims to stay in the Dominican Republic, others were Dominicans of Haitian descent, including some who were summarily deported and others who left in the belief that their deportation was inevitable, regardless of the strength of their claims to Dominican citizenship.

No government or agency has tracked where most of these people have settled in Haiti. However, at least 3,000 of the poorest have lived in camps near the southern Haitian town of Anse-à-Pitres where many still live, struggling to find enough to eat. People live there in makeshift shelters of cardboard and stitched-together clothing. Although Hurricane Matthew hit other areas of Haiti harder, the flimsy shelters of the camps could not withstand the flooding from the October 4, 2016, storm.

Nongovernmental groups have called access to water and sanitation in the camps “deplorable.” Local government officials told Human Rights Watch they have not received any extra funds from the central government to support the camp residents.

Human Rights Watch visited the Anse-à-Pitres camps in September to research availability of reproductive health care, as it has done in other camp settings in Haiti. Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 women and girls who were pregnant or had recently given birth and found that many could not afford or otherwise access basic care. Human Rights Watch also interviewed local aid workers, local government officials, medical officials, and representatives of nongovernmental groups.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch found that the Dominican government’s efforts to ameliorate the 2013 court ruling, while helpful in principle, were flawed in practice. Undocumented Dominicans of Haitian descent now in Haiti, including many children, whose nationality was taken away, have no clear, accessible path to establish their lawful claims to Dominican citizenship, leaving many stateless in violation of their right to nationality.

The Haitian government, including the new administration following the November 20 elections, should address the problem and make clear the options for these stateless people to stay in Haiti and get Haitian citizenship and whether they can still protect their claims to Dominican nationality, as well as the Haitian government’s commitment to work to facilitate either choice

The arrival of thousands of people in Anse-à-Pitres increased demand for scarce resources in a region that was already short of food. The Haitian government and international donors should find ways to respond to these increased needs, including by supporting the increased availability of reproductive health care for women, which is harder to find in the town and surrounding areas compared to other parts of Haiti.

Women interviewed said they had to bribe or beg Dominican guards to allow them to cross the border into the Dominican Republic for essential care, such as caesarean sections and sonographies that are not available in the Haitian town. And none were sleeping under a mosquito net, despite widespread malaria, which is especially dangerous to pregnant women, and now the Zika virus, which can impair fetal development.

“Women forced out of the Dominican Republic repeatedly said that they had had better access to maternal care back home,” Wheeler said. “Almost all living in the camps also said that they were constantly hungry, especially when pregnant.”

Six of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed had been deported by Dominican officials, apparently arbitrarily. They said that uniformed officials they thought were immigration officers did not make even cursory attempts to determine whether they should be deported, aside from checking whether they had national identity or work documents, and some were not even asked their names. All had been separated from some of their children for days or weeks after they crossed the border and had no legal recourse or opportunity to challenge the deportations before a judge.

The Haitian government, and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a statelessness mandate as well as a refugee one, should establish a helpline or accessible information desks for people looking for assistance with their nationality. The Haitian government should work with the Dominican government to normalize migration between the two countries. Haitians also need reliable access to Haitian identity documents.

The Dominican government should immediately restore the full nationality of all those affected by the 2013 ruling, find a way to ensure all children born in the country before January 26, 2010, have access to civil registries, and issue corresponding documents to ensure they are protected from arbitrary expulsion to Haiti. The Dominican government should also actively find and recognize as Dominican the denationalized citizens in Haiti, allow them to promptly move back to the Dominican Republic, and issue corresponding documents. Any obstacles preventing birth registration by Dominican parents of Haitian heritage should be lifted.

The Dominican Republic should immediately end arbitrary deportations, and ensure that all lawful deportations are carried out in a manner that respects the rights of those concerned. Deportations should be assessed on an individual basis, and anyone deported should be provided with a copy of the deportation order and the opportunity to challenge it before an independent court of law that can suspend it. Deportations should do no harm to family unity.

Human Rights Watch also found that the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR, both of which have important mandates to assist people in this situation, reduced their monitoring of the population movement across the border in mid-2016, including abusive deportations, at least in part because of funding shortages. In September, UNHCR had only been able to help return five Dominicans to the Dominican Republic out of what it believes to be thousands with legitimate claims, again in part because of funding shortfalls.

“The arbitrary removal of citizenship of thousands of Dominicans has led to unnecessary suffering and yet no effective steps are being taken to try and rectify the situation,” Wheeler said.