(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.
Deportation and Statelessness
In 2013, a Dominican court stripped tens of thousands of children of undocumented Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic of their Dominican citizenship, based on a retroactive reinterpretation of the country’s nationality law. The changes were widely condemned and called discriminatory and an “arbitrary deprivation of nationality” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. UNHCR expressed concern about the statelessness created by the decision.
In 2014, the Dominican government passed a law intended to ameliorate the impact of that decision by allowing those affected to secure their citizenship rights. However, a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch found that efforts by the Dominican government to carry out that law were badly flawed, leaving tens of thousands of Dominicans stripped of their nationality.
Government agencies refused to restore full citizenship to many people who had already been registered with the government as citizens before the ruling. The 2014 law created a registration process for these Dominicans who had never registered, or who had never been registered when babies, but tens of thousands were blocked by too-short deadlines and often unworkable bureaucratic obstacles. Officials and police heavily profiled people of Haitian descent, and deported many summarily. The Dominican government admitted that over 44,000 Dominicans had been unable to register, and nongovernmental groups believe the number may be higher.
Some of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed in Haiti said they had been unable to navigate the registration process and were summarily deported or felt that they had no choice but to leave the country.
C.P., 29, was born in the Dominican Republic. She did not register under the 2014 process, she said, because: “All I saw were people like me being maltreated, so I didn’t try to register.” Dominican officers wearing a uniform she did not recognize deported her in mid-2015. She said that she was not given any opportunity to appeal and was deported the same day. No one took her name or gave her any paperwork during the deportation. “I didn’t have any clothes except what I was wearing, or anything for the baby,” she said.
N.B., 37, was also born in the Dominican Republic. She said that her half-sister tried to help her register. “It was hopeless,” she said. “The officers asked a lot of questions, said we had to find the midwife who cut my umbilical cord, or get someone well-known in the village to come and vouch that I was born there.” She was deported in mid-2015 by men she described as being “from immigration.” She said that she was not provided with any paperwork, and was deported the same day, without any opportunity to appeal. “They just asked: ‘Do you have papers?’ and when I said ‘No’, they said, ‘Get in the truck.’”
Other women said they were unable to register their children because they themselves lacked identification documents. Many did not understand the registration process or assumed they couldn’t afford to register. Women also faced problems in registering their Dominican-born children because they did not have birth certificates for them. This is consistent with what Human Rights Watch found in 2015, when researchers identified 59 people who were unable to register the births of their children because the parents had documentation problems or because officials refused.
G.J., 38, lived in the Dominican Republic for 22 years as a plantation worker. All of her nine children were born there, the first when she was 15. But none of her children have Dominican birth certificates. “There was no way to register their births as we did not have papers,” she said. Since she was deported in 2015 G.J. has obtained Haitian birth certificates for her children so they can attend school. The birth certificates incorrectly state that the children were born in Haiti. She had to sneak back into the Dominican Republic to pick up five of her children who had remained there when she was deported, and bring them to a camp at Anse-à-Pitres.
In Anse-à-Pitres anyone who has Haitian parents can get a birth certificate from a local registrar. In part because children need to have a birth certificate to register for school, many parents have sought this documentation even if their child has a claim to Dominican nationality. Others have managed to get Haitian birth certificates for children that list the Dominican Republic as the place of birth. It’s not clear whether these children may face administrative hurdles later in life, or even statelessness, if they try to get a Haitian national ID when they reach 18. Haitian law banned dual citizenship until 2012, when a law was passed to allow it. However, it is unclear whether children born before the law was passed can have dual nationalities, or can claim Haitian nationality if they are in fact Dominican.
I.N, 27, had lived in the Dominican Republic since she was 12. She had four children, all born in the Dominican Republic, but none of their births were registered there. “My children’s father was a Dominican man,” she said. “But it was too complex to get them registered as it would have had to be him to do it, and he already had a wife and other children and was unwilling.” I.N. left in mid-2015, fearing deportation. I.N.’s children, some whom live in Haiti and some with her relatives in the Dominican Republic, still lack any papers to establish their citizenship.
Of the six women who said they had been summarily deported, five said that they were deported while holding their babies. All six were separated from at least some of their children during the deportation process, in one case for about two weeks.
A.A., 30, was born in Haiti but had been living in the Dominican Republic for 21 years without registering as a migrant. She said that men she thought were immigration agents took her by truck with her baby to somewhere near the Ajimani border point, then ordered her to get out of the truck and walk across the border. “It was hard,” she said. “The baby was crying, we were hungry and I did not even know really where they had taken us.”
A lack of national documentation is not only a problem for people who have been living in the Dominican Republic. Between one million and two million Haitians may be undocumented, according to the UNHCR.
Independent border monitors, funded by the International Organization for Migration, have documented 149,493 people crossing the border into Haiti since deportations re-started in mid-2015. Of these, 32,211 had been officially deported by Dominican officials, 25,819 more told monitors they had been unofficially deported, and more than 91,000 people were registered as having left the Dominican Republic “spontaneously.”
More than 67 percent of those who answered the International Organization for Migration’s questionnaire did not have any national identity papers at all, neither Haitian nor from the Dominican Republic.
Children, including those who were born in the Dominican Republic before 2010, had to be smuggled over the border to join their mothers in Haiti. They are now stateless or have instead acquired Haitian birth certificates.
Access to Reproductive Health Care in Anse-à-Pitres
All 18 of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they had worse access to reproductive health care in Haiti than if they had not left the Dominican Republic.
Anse-à-Pitres is in a particularly under-resourced region of Haiti. The largest clinic in the area, serving about 32,000 people, has only two full-time doctors, neither a specialist. Because of a lack of staffing, equipment, and medicines, it is unable to perform surgery. It has a new maternity ward, constructed by an international organization, but cannot use it because of a lack of staff. Medical officials and aid workers in the area said they believe that most women in the area give birth at home. Haitian Department of Health Services data from 2012 ranks the Southeast department, the region where Anse-à-Pitres is located, as having one of the highest percentages of at-home births in the country.
The closest place in Haiti to get a caesarian section is roughly seven hours away. Many women with labor complications beg or bribe their way across the nearby border to Dominican towns where they can receive care. Several of these women, as well as local women rights activists, described this as “humiliating.” Women said they also bribe officials to allow them to cross the border for better prenatal care, including sonograms, not available in Anse-à-Pitres. A nurse with counseling skills who had been stationed in Anse-à-Pitres and left in 2013, said no mental health services are available, including for rape victims, although emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis against HIV transmission are available.
The Anse-à-Pitres clinic provides free family planning but several of the women and girls said they did not know they could get contraception there.
Seeing a doctor is inexpensive (about 25 Haitian gourdes/US$0.38), but many of the camp residents interviewed said that they could not afford medicine, and so did not visit the doctor, even when unwell, or have checkups during their pregnancy.
The Haitian government does not provide free drugs. Instead, clinics buy them and then sell them to patients. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) used to provide obstetric medicines and other forms of assistance but has not done so since 2014, a medical official at the clinic said. He said that the clinic has severe shortages of drugs, including of basic antibiotics, and has not received significant government or other support since mid-2015.
All the women interviewed said that they often experienced severe hunger during their pregnancies, sometimes eating only once a day or every two days. No systematic food aid is provided to the camp residents, including to babies, and there is no maternal feeding program. None of the women could afford vitamins to take during their pregnancy.
The International Organization for Migration provided about 580 families living in these camps with rent and cash support for a year in April 2016, in an effort to clear the camps. Women who received the assistance said that their families’ lives had improved since they relocated. Other families have returned to the camps, or were never registered for the assistance and are not able now to get any support. Aid organizations and government agencies stopped providing even intermittent aid to the camps in May, and it does not appear that any new plans to provide aid are on the horizon.
“I went to Dominican Republic for a sonogram, because there’s none here,” said C.M., 25. “I had to pay 500 pesos for that and I also had to pay a bribe to cross the border because I have no papers. I know that you had to pay to get papers to stay in the Dominican Republic and I had no money. No one explained anything to me, how I was someone [who would have to register to begin the process of nationalization]. It’s common in this camp to have to have sex for food or money, I’ve done it many times, but most often with my current partner.”
She said she was born in the Dominican Republic but did not register as she did not understand the process or have any documents, and was three months pregnant when she moved into the camp in mid-2015.
“I had complications,” said N.A., 24. “I went to the clinic in Anse-à-Pitres but they could not help me so I had to bribe 500 pesos to get across the border. And then I had to go on to Baharona because they could not help me in Pedernales and so that was another 4,000 pesos. I am really worried because I borrowed all this money and I have still not paid it back. I have a partner here but it is just an economic thing.” She was born in Haiti, and deported from the Dominican Republic when pregnant in mid-2015, after living there for two years. She has been in the camp since June 2015 and is now pregnant again.