In our backyard: The Caribbean’s statelessness and refugee crisis

A man ties sticks to build a makeshift tent at a refugee camp for Haitians returning from the Dominican Republic on the outskirts of Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, September 7, 2015. Dominican officials last month began implementing a controversial immigration program targeting Haitian migrants and Dominican-born people of Haitian descent. The program centers on round-ups and deportations that have triggered concerns about a slow-growing border migration crisis in the poorest country in the Americas. So far about 1,500 people have been deported at a pace of 50 to 100 per day, according to relief officials with access to records supplied by the Dominican government. The officials asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the number of deportees. Thousands more have fled the Dominican Republic out of fear of arrest or harassment, scared by neighbors, bosses, coworkers and police or immigration officials. Picture taken September 7, 2015. To match Feature HAITI-DOMINICAN/DEPORTEES REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares - RTS1TZI

The migrant crisis in Europe has placed the issues of refugees and migration firmly on the global agenda, with estimates that over 1 million people entered Europe in 2015 as refugees or migrants. Fleeing war, generalized violence, or repressive governments, they mostly originate from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, and Pakistan. Europe is not alone: Lebanon, for instance—a much smaller country with a population of 4.5 million—is faced with an ongoing influx of Syrian refugees from the latter country’s now 6-year civil war. Estimates indicate that Lebanon now has at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Of equal import but often overlooked in discussions around refugees and forced migrants is the question of stateless people. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognizes someone as stateless if he or she is not recognized as a citizen or national “under the operations of the laws of any country.” The U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, has gone further by repeatedly emphasizing the deleterious impact of statelessness on the enjoyment of human rights. The Council adopted a resolution in June 2016 on the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, focusing on the repercussions of arbitrarily depriving people of their nationality and the centrality of nationality as a fundamental freedom that impacts every element of a person’s life, including his or her education, health, social inclusion, employment, housing, and social security.

In the Caribbean, these repercussions have been clear in the impact of the September 2013 ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic (DR) that stripped citizenship from descendants of people who were deemed to have been in the Dominican Republic illegally, retroactive to 1929. In effect, the ruling rendered more than an estimated 200,000 people stateless by removing their citizenship, refusing to issue them birth certificates and identity documents, thus denationalizing them and creating what has been justifiably termed the “Western Hemisphere’s worst refugee crisis.”

People of Haitian descent—including, of course, Dominicans—account for over 86 percent of the affected population. Thousands of Haitians arrived in the Dominican Republic in the 1890s and the first three decades of the 20th century, under the aegis of the Dominican government no less, to work on sugar cane plantations. The newly-arrived Haitians were given fiches, or the equivalent of a work permit, that permitted them to stay and work—and with which they registered their children, who became Dominicans through the principle of jus soli. Although the Dominican government vehemently denies it, the crisis’ antecedence in the historical anti-Haitanismo that has formed part of Dominican culture toward Haitians and their descendants and that is also largely race-based is inescapable.

The Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Amnesty International, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UNHCR, and others all denounced the ruling. But it has not been repealed. In fact, the Dominican legislature followed the ruling with a Naturalization Law in May 2014 that was touted for allegedly assisting disenfranchised Dominicans to reclaim their citizenship. However, it placed the burden of proof on the victims to provide records of their births and also their parents’ births in the Dominican Republic and was plagued by implementation flaws. Many of the births were either never registered—in many cases because Dominican government officials deliberately denied records to people of Haitian descent, or because Dominican officials did not return original birth certificates to people who were deemed to “ look” or “sound” Haitian when they presented their certificates for renewal.

Records, while not completely reliable, show that up to 7,000 people were able to regularize their status before the expiration of a June 2015 moratorium. Those who were unable to regularize their status were required to register as foreigners in the country where they were born. Many of the affected had never seen Haiti but between August 2015 and May 2016—after the expiration of the June 2015 moratorium—it was estimated that over 40,000 people were deported from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. A further 71,389 people reportedly returned “spontaneously” Yet even during this “moratorium,” there were documented reports of people being summarily removed based, in some cases, only on their appearance.

With the fear of violence from Dominican authorities, misinformation, and deportation and removal driving the movement of people from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, makeshift settlement camps housing tens of thousands of people sprung up in areas near to the Haitian-Dominican border. Human Rights Watch noted that the International Organization for Migration estimated that as of November 2016, an estimated 150,000 Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent entered Haiti since the middle of 2015. Statelessness for these people means they are unable to access education, employment, public utilities, health care, housing, and other basic necessities fundamental to daily, civilized life. Moreover, as has occurred in this instant case, statelessness also renders them vulnerable to arbitrary detention, arrest, expulsion, and forcible separation from their families—and in many cases, from the only country they have ever known as home.

The silence of the international community as a whole—apart from concerned NGOs and some international organizations—since the start of the crisis has not been encouraging. The same goes for the tepid response of more influential actors who may have been better positioned to exert more pressure or use a more effective version of moral suasion on the Dominican government and to encourage the Haitian Government to respond in a more expeditious manner to the needs of returning nationals, notwithstanding the latter government’s capacity constraints.

There may not be easy answers in seeking to compel a government to honor the human rights of its citizens, yet perhaps it is precisely this simple: Statelessness is a question of the promotion and protection of human rights, and constitutes a challenge to security and to good governance in the region. This has been underscored not only by the violation of long-established norms and values on citizenship and the treatment of nationals by its government, but also by the proliferation of serious health challenges such as malaria and the Zika virus in the makeshift camps on the Haitian-Dominican border.

Against the backdrop of the impending end of the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), it is even more imperative that the regional and hemispheric community pay renewed attention to this issue. It is a situation that, if left unchecked, could not only erode gains made in the health care sector in the region, but also further exacerbate instability in Haiti. It is a stark reminder that apart from migration and refugees, statelessness can be among the most challenging issues for each region of the world and one that requires sustained, collective, and nuanced action by the international community.