A group in Haiti that supports people sent home from the neighbouring Dominican Republic is calling on Canada to raise the alarm about accusations of inhumane and racist treatment of those fleeing chaos.
“It’s serious and it’s unacceptable, the situation that Haitians are experiencing in the Dominican Republic,” said Sam Guillaume, spokesman for the Haitian organization Support Group for Refugees and Returnees.
“It’s unfathomable to see so much mistreatment, so much racism,” he said in a French-language interview.
His organization, known by the French acronym GARR, is based in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. It also has staff monitoring the treatment of migrants the Dominican Republic has dropped off along its border with Haiti.
In recent months, the group has reported a sharp uptick in Dominican authorities rounding up Haitians across the country and holding them in conditions that have raised concerns among international groups.
Many of the Haitians crossed illegally into the Dominican Republic or overstayed their visit. But GARR alleges that a significant proportion of them are being sent back to Haiti despite holding valid visas.
The United States government says Haiti is on the brink of a migration crisis as violent gangs have taken over large swaths of the country. Haiti’s de facto government has requested a Western military intervention.
Thousands of Haitians have legally and illegally crossed the border into the Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti, to escape rising living costs, a cholera outbreak and the threat of kidnapping.
In the first nine months of 2022, the Dominican Republic deported 108,436 migrants – more than three times the number in 2016, when the country started recording such data.
Last November, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, urged the Dominican Republic to stop sending Haitians over the border to a country that is so unsafe.
Dominican President Luis Abinader characterized the comments as “unacceptable and irresponsible” meddling in a domestic issue.
The same month, Abinader signed a decree giving Dominican law enforcement more powers to deport undocumented immigrants.
GARR reported that 16,892 Haitians were sent over border in January, 126 of whom were pregnant, and 70 of whom were minors, with numbers trending up since last fall. The numbers don’t include people who wilfully returned to Haiti.
“Sometimes it’s in their sleep. Sometimes at the hospital, when they’re there for a medical appointment. Sometimes it’s at work, or in the street. It’s as if there was a hunt for Haitians in the Dominican Republic,” Guillaume said.
GARR has documented migrants being beaten in custody and detained without food or showers. Some accuse officials of sexually assaulting them or destroying their identification.
Guillaume said the dragnet has included Dominican citizens who have no connection to Haiti but are rounded up because they have “black skin and curly hair.”
Last November, the U.S. embassy in its capital, Santo Domingo, issued an alert for “darker skinned U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens of African descent” in the Dominican Republic, saying Americans had reported being “delayed, detained, or subject to heightened questioning at ports of entry and in other encounters with immigration officials, based on their skin colour.”
The embassy noted that Dominican migration authorities arrest people who are legally in the country and detain them “in overcrowded detention centres, 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.”
In 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights raised similar concerns about arbitrary, race-based detention in “deplorable hygienic and health conditions.”
Under a 1999 agreement signed by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the former agreed not to round up migrants at night. It also pledged to keep children with their parents and let migrants hold onto their documents and personal effects.
Guillaume said the government isn’t following the agreement, and is conducting nighttime raids and detaining Haitians without giving them a chance to go home and retrieve cash savings accumulated over years. Some migrants even claim that their employers phoned migration authorities in advance of pay days, to avoid paying wages.
The group has tracked an uptick in unaccompanied minors and parents being sent back without their children.
GARR has had to deploy staff to smaller border crossings, where roughly 10 per cent of Haitians are brought despite the 1999 agreement calling for crossings only at four official border posts.
That leaves Haitian authorities struggling to process returnees, and non-governmental groups scrambling to provide help for people to reach their relatives. Guillaume said people returned at non-official crossings seem to have faced the worst treatment.
“We see trucks unloading Haitians, day and night, with people who have no bearings, who don’t know what to do, who arrived empty-handed because they didn’t have time to retrieve their luggage,” he said.
The Dominican embassy in Ottawa referred questions to the country’s foreign affairs department, which said it did not expect to be able to provide a response within six days.
In the past year, Dominican politicians have called for a wall to block Haitian migrants, arguing it would prevent a cholera epidemic from spreading over the border. Earlier this month, former Dominican president Hipolito Mejia declared in an interview that “Haiti is not a country; it is a jungle.”
The current government has said it does not have the capacity to sustain so many asylum seekers, including for health care, and has urged the international community to focus on addressing the chaos in Haiti.
Guillaume said the international community should still call out the Dominican Republic, particularly as it vies for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, for a term that would start next year.
“It’s important to sound the alarm,” he said.
“A country like Canada can get the attention of the Dominican authorities on these grave violations of rights that they inflict on Haitians.”
Foreign Minister Melanie Joly met last Sunday with her Dominican counterpart Roberto Alvarez to discuss the situation in Haiti, but her office would not say whether she raised the issue of how migrants are being treated.
“We are in solution mode and have had numerous discussions with key partners across the hemisphere, including the Dominican Republic,” spokesman Adrien Blanchard said in an e-mail.
He noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $10 million last week to protect Haitian women and children along the Dominican Republic border.
“Canada has provided significant funding to key humanitarian partners on the ground in order to address the urgent needs of populations affected by the crisis, whether related to recent displacement, violence or the cholera epidemic.”