Dominican Republic: Prejudice Against Haitians Boils Over - Again
By Valeria Vilardo
SANTO DOMINGO, Nov 10 (IPS) - "A group of Dominicans armed with pistols, machetes and knives came to take revenge on us. I broke my leg trying to escape from my house, which was on fire. It's not fair that all Haitians should have to pay for the crime of one," Elena Piti, a Haitian mother of seven who lives in the Dominican Republic, told IPS.
"I'm thinking of going back to Haiti, because I'm afraid that something might happen to me. Besides, I have nothing left here. I lost everything: my house, my money and my job," said Franklin Jean, who IPS found hiding out in a precarious shelter in the surrounding fields.
Jean and Piti lived in the "batey" (a shantytown of sugar workers) of El Cerro, near the town of Juan Gómez in the northwestern province of Montecristi, close to the border with Haiti.
They were fleeing a violent reprisal on Oct. 29 by a mob of Dominicans infuriated by the murder of an elderly local farmer, Alcibíades Jiménez, supposedly committed by a young Haitian man who was working for him. Twenty-five homes in El Cerro were set on fire, and eight were completely burnt down. The roughly 200 Haitians living there fled the shantytown.
In an unrelated incident in the town of Neyba in the southwestern province of Bahoruco, a mob of young men killed two Haitian immigrants and injured nine others on Oct. 28. The violence was triggered by the death of a Dominican man, allegedly killed by a Haitian who tried to steal his motorcycle.
Human rights violations against Haitians and their descendants, including lynchings, and mass deportations of migrants are longstanding problems in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola and a 380-km border with Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
The president of Haiti's lower house of parliament, Pierre Eric Jean-Jacques, announced early this month that he would suggest to his Dominican opposite number Julio Cesar Valentín the creation of a bilateral legislative committee to investigate the latest violent incidents.
Poverty affects both Dominicans and Haitians in the two provinces where the violence occurred. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 19 percent of people over 15 in Montecristi are illiterate, four percent of children under the age of four are malnourished, and 51 percent of the population of the province lacks access to clean water.
In Bahoruco, in the south, people stand a 14 percent chance of dying before the age of 40, and adult illiteracy stands at 30 percent -- the highest rate in any Dominican province. Furthermore, nearly 30 percent of people do not have steady water supplies, and 10 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition, says the UNDP Human Development Report 2007-2008.
"Thugs took advantage of the situation to sack the homes of Haitians and flout their racist, xenophobic attitudes," activist Sonia Pierre, founder and director of the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA), told IPS. "The authorities should control these groups of ruffians and uphold public safety."
Pierre, who has advocated for the human rights of Haitians for 21 years, has herself experienced discrimination and even death threats for speaking out about abuses.
The activist said the media in the Dominican Republic have the duty to provide balanced, accurate reporting on violence and discrimination against Haitians and to avoid encouraging acts of discrimination against Haitians or people of Haitian descent.
According to unofficial data, there are more than 800,000 Haitians living in this country of nine million people. Haiti, which occupies the smaller western portion of the island, has a population of 8.6 million, 80 percent of whom live in poverty, compared to the Dominican Republic's official poverty rate of 25 percent.
In Haiti, the huge majority of the population is black, while a small lighter-skinned mixed-race minority dominates the economy. In the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, although only a small proportion of the population is white while the rest are of mixed-race origin, most people do not identify themselves as black.
Skin colour prejudice is one of the motives for discrimination, according to a nationwide survey on Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, "Encuesta sobre Inmigrantes Haitianos en República Dominicana", published in 2004 by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO).
In the survey, 71 percent of Haitians interviewed said they had been verbally abused by Dominicans because of their country of origin and skin colour, in their neighbourhoods as well as at their places of work. "Haitian devil," "Negro" (considered a derogatory term in the Dominican Republic), "sorcerer" and "get out of the country" were the most frequently mentioned insults.
Unlike in the 1980s, when immigration from Haiti was regulated by inter-governmental agreements to meet demand for cheap labour on the sugar plantations, today there is a large steady influx of undocumented Haitian migrants.
According to the IOM, 41 percent of Haitians work in agriculture, 38 percent in the construction industry, eight percent as vendors, and six percent in domestic service in Dominican homes.
The authorities have lost control over the influx of migrants, Bridget Wooding, an associate researcher on migration at FLACSO, told IPS.
She also said that despite the regular waves of deportations of Haitian migrants, there are no reliable figures on the number and location of Haitians living in the country.
The fact that there is no pathway for Haitian immigrants and their descendants to regularise their immigration status is a serious obstacle for access to education and health services. Without documents, it is very difficult for Haitians to have their labour rights respected, Wooding added.
Discrimination and mass expulsion of Haitians were the main concerns expressed by Amnesty International in its 2007 report on human rights in the Dominican Republic.
During the mass expulsions, which the London-based rights watchdog described as illegal, there were frequent complaints of mistreatment by migration officials and border guards, according to the report.
Deportations appear to be intensifying after the violence in Neyba and Juan Gómez.
The Dominican Republic's migration office said that 406 undocumented Haitians were repatriated in the last week of October. According to official figures, between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians are deported each year.
"The deportation strategy is unjustified," Wooding maintained. "It is essential for the Dominican government to create an atmosphere of public safety, and to ensure that immigrants have the right to remain in the country."
Haitians often work in exploitative conditions in agriculture, the construction industry, and domestic service, according to human rights groups.
On Jan. 11, 2006, the bodies of 24 people were found near the northern border town of Dajabón. They had apparently suffocated in an attempt to smuggle them into the Dominican Republic in a sealed truck. According to the reports, the bodies were thrown out of the back of the vehicle, which was carrying over 60 Haitians.
On Nov. 2, migration authorities announced that fines are to be imposed on plantation owners and construction sites that employ undocumented Haitians, pay exploitative wages or mistreat them.