Authorities in the Dominican Republic have rounded up thousands of Haitian migrants — and anyone who looks like they could be from Haiti — and deported them to a country in the grips of deadly gang violence and instability, advocates say.
The forced removals, which rights groups say have escalated this month, have drawn international criticism and calls for restraint amid reports that unaccompanied children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people are being deported.
In the Dominican Republic, a majority of the population identifies as mixed race, while the country’s neighbour Haiti has a predominantly Black population. This has fuelled accusations 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 is grappling with rising rates of hunger, extreme poverty and an outbreak of cholera, in addition to surging violence. The country also does not have the state institutions needed to cope with an influx of arrivals, experts say.
William Charpantier, coordinator for MENAMIRD, a national roundtable for migrants and refugees in the Dominican Republic, said the Dominican police and armed forces are detaining Haitians in the streets as well as “all those who look like Haitians”.
More than 20,000 people had been deported in a nine-day period this month, Charpantier said, including some Dominican citizens with Haitian ancestry.
An official source with knowledge of the matter told Al Jazeera that, if the current pace of deportations continues, approximately 40,000 people will be sent from the Dominican Republic to Haiti in November. That is in addition to the 60,000 who were deported in the past months, said the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
UNICEF said an estimated 1,800 unaccompanied minors were expelled from the country this year alone, a number the Dominican Republic denies. UNICEF has been working with partner organisations at the Haitian border to receive the children.
“These deportations have resulted in the separation of families. People with valid documents have been deported, people who were born here in the Dominican Republic have been deported,” Charpantier told Al Jazeera.
“These aren’t deportations. It’s persecution based on race.”
History of migration
The accelerated deportations come after decades of fraught relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share an approximately 400km-long (248-mile) border on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
About 500,000 Haitians currently live in the Dominican Republic, a country of 11 million people. They primarily work in the Dominican agricultural sector, as well as in the construction and service industries.
Many have been in the country for years, as Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic began en masse following the United States occupation of Haiti in 1915.
“They needed workers in the plantations to do the dirty work that the Dominicans didn’t want to do because the pay was low and the conditions were horrible,” said Georges Fouron, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who specialises in immigrant identities and Haiti.
While the Dominican economy still relies on Haitian labour, Fouron explained that long-standing fearmongering around the “Haitianisation” of Dominican society persists. In the past, those fears have led to violence: A massacre in 1937 under the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo left thousands of Haitians dead along the border.
Now, with Haiti facing a crisis situation, “the fear is that there will be a spillover of the gangs and all these activities that are going on in Haiti,” Fouron told Al Jazeera. He predicts “it’s going to increase these negative sentiments” against Haitians “instead of abating them”.
Haiti has experienced months of escalating gang violence following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. The political process is paralysed, most state institutions are not functioning, and insecurity plagues nearly 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’re not familiar with the social realities of Haiti, so they are in limbo, and after a while, what do they do? They cross 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 regularisation plan”, which would create paths for migrants to acquire legal residence.
Efforts over the past few years to regularise Haitians’ migration status in the Dominican Republic have stalled, Wooding explained. Approximately 200,000 people who fell out of legal status were made vulnerable to deportation.
“What appears to be happening is a revolving door situation whereby people being deported are then re-entering the country because it’s clear that, one way or another, 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 “instrumentalised” for political gain, depicted as an “enemy next door”.
“They’re between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “On the one hand, it seems the Dominican Republic doesn’t want them. On the other hand, it’s very, very difficult for them to get back to their original communities because of the gang violence in Haiti, because of the economic situation and so on.”
People stand outside a migration clearance centre in Santo Domingo, trying to obtain information on detained family members or employees on November 15, 2022 [Raul Asencio/Courtesy by Listin Diario/via Reuters]
In early November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged all countries to suspend any returns to Haiti due to the “devastating humanitarian and security crisis” in the country.
Days later, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk specifically named the Dominican Republic in another appeal to stop deportations. “I also call on the Dominican Republic authorities to step up 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 slammed the Dominican government, calling the deportations “inhumane” and “discriminatory”. The US, meanwhile, issued an alert this month, warning travellers that they could face “increased interaction with Dominican authorities, especially for darker skinned US citizens and US citizens of African descent”.
The US embassy in Santo Domingo said that Americans reported being “delayed, detained or subject to heightened questioning at ports of entry and in other encounters with immigration officials based on their skin color” in recent months.
“There are reports that detainees are kept in overcrowded detention centers, without the ability to challenge their detention and without access to food or restroom facilities, 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 set its border policies in accordance with the country’s own constitution as well as international law. In a statement on Sunday, the foreign affairs ministry also called the US allegations “unfounded”.
The crisis in Haiti “seriously affects” Dominican national security and Haitian migrants are putting a strain on 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 capacities. The Dominican Republic can’t take it anymore.”
‘Suspend the deportations’
Dominican president, Abinader, also appeared to double down last week when he pledged to increase the deportations, as reported by The Associated Press and other media outlets. Abinader’s government is also working to build a wall on the Dominican border with Haiti.
The Dominican foreign affairs ministry and the country’s mission to the UN did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.
According to Al Jazeera’s official source, over the past months, the Dominican authorities have detained women for deportation outside hospitals, or have taken women and children away in early-morning raids on their homes. Some people were not given the chance to put on clothes before being brought to a deportation point.
“Deportation enforcement during the last month is four times higher than the normal rate of deportations,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Charpantier at MENAMIRD appealed to the Dominican authorities to halt the removals. “What we’re asking — demanding — from the government is to suspend the deportations and respect human rights,” he said.
“The way they’re carrying out the deportations is by identifying Black people. They can control the borders, but inside the country, they cannot keep persecuting and rounding up Black immigrants.”