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February 22, 2019

Inequality drives migration crisis for Haiti, Dominican Republic

Inequality drives migration crisis for Haiti, Dominican Republic
'Soldiers stand at the Haitian-Dominican border near the cities of Ouanaminthe (Haiti) and Dajabon (Dominican Republic) on July 3, 2018' - By: AFP Pierre Michel JEAN

Chaos reigns at the Ouanaminthe bridge that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where haphazard checks by border agents and the sight of people avoiding the gate by crossing a river instead are symptomatic of a growing migration crisis.

This is one of four official crossings where thousands of Haitians are being summarily deported each month as part of an immigration crackdown.

Rights activists say the expulsions are based on racial profiling and the darker skin of Haitians, with many native-born black Dominicans being caught up in the process, and families torn apart as a result.

"The vast majority of people being expelled are unable to prove their citizenship because they lack documentation," even if they were born in the Dominican Republic, said International Organization for Migration head of mission Fabien Sambussy.

"And the biggest problem with these expulsions is that families are being split apart."

Sometimes, adults are deported without their children. At other times, children sent back try to return to find their parents, while some Haitian children are sent unaccompanied to the border to go and live with a relative in hope of a better life.

Many end up at Sainte-Therese center, a temporary home for children awaiting reunification with their families -- a difficult if not impossible task when parents themselves are residing in the Dominican Republic without documents.

Driven by grinding poverty and high unemployment, Haitians make the eastward journey every year to their wealthier neighbor that shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Relations between the two countries have long been tense, but the influx of cheap labor was begrudgingly accepted, until the Dominican Republic launched a hardline policy in 2015.

- Rights abuses -

The numbers are startling.

In 2017, Dominican authorities recorded the expulsions of 57,687 Haitians. That sum has already nearly been matched in the first six months of 2018, with more than 11,200 in May alone.

"All the deportees arrive in a situation of extreme vulnerability," said Martine Stephanie Louis, a Haitian psychologist who works with recent returnees.

"Often, they have spent days without food or water or even a shower. Many were stripped of what little money they had, some are beaten."

Visiting Haiti this week, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock called on both countries to do more to deal with human traffickers driving the crisis.

But he added that many Haitians would continue to feel compelled to leave until their homeland provided more opportunities.

"Political will matters a lot but also economic progress is important as well," he said.

- 'Nothing to lose' -

For Haitian migrants, "it's a matter of survival: being an illegal immigrant on the Dominican side is much better than staying back in Haiti where they don't have a job, don't know how to put their children in school, don't know what will happen tomorrow," said Sambussy.

"Deported families have nothing to lose, so they try to return," he added.

One factor that could help reduce poverty on the Haitian side is more effectively controlling trade. The Haitian central bank estimates some $400 million in customs fees are lost annually because of smuggling.

"These resources could be reinvested in border areas so Haitians could find at home what they go to the Dominican Republic for," said Sambussy.

He called for a more effective judicial system that holds to account smugglers and those who profit off the backs of struggling migrants.

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