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Escaping poverty and violence

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 31 January 2000
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Escaping poverty and violence, 31 January 2000, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


At a time when Haiti is going through a period of great uncertainty, the flow of people leaving illegally for either the United States or the Dominican Republic is ever increasing.

The luckier ones, those with visas, leave for Canada or Europe. However, the large majority of people travel to the American coast – which they try to reach on "lucky" boats – and especially to the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola. Unfortunately, both Florida and Haiti's Dominican neighbour, for different reasons, are more of a snare than an Eldorado.

On January 5th 2000, nearly 400 stowaways were repatriated to Haiti by the American coastguard. It is thought that ten of them died either during the crossing or trying to reach the shore. Haitians living in the United States feel that American policies are fundamentally racist and that they favour Cuban refugees. In fact, the United States fear that in the end the tensions that exist, and which are likely to be exacerbated during the election period, will lead to a new wave of people leaving for Florida.

Haitians who leave for the United States are fleeing their country's poverty. The fact that they are considered to be refugees for economical rather than political reasons explains why they have less chances of staying on US soil. Moreover, unlike with the Cubans, there are few Haitians who are American nationals, who have sufficient political influence, and who are united enough to represent the interests of their country's migrant population.

Getting to the Dominican Republic is simpler because its border is easier to cross. But doing so can lead to more tragic consequences. Haitian emigrants to the Dominican Republic have always been a source of tension between the two countries, especially since 1937, when 17,000 Haitians were massacred under dictator Trujillo's government. The Dominican authorities regularly deport Haitians, and the deportations are marked by violence, roundups and families being separated. Temporary immigrants are far from being the only victims of excessive repatriation and exploitation on the bateys (agricultural settlements). Such action is also directed at settled immigrants, children of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, and black Dominicans.

A combined commission, established in 1996 with representatives of both countries, has been unable to find any long-term solutions. The commission lacks a mechanism to mediate between the two countries and this evidences a gap between the Haitian and Dominican positions on the issue at hand; an issue that is far from resolved. Haiti has therefore asked the Dominican Republic to set up a procedure to ensure sufficient warning is given before each repatriation, but the Dominican authorities have not taken this demand seriously. Besides, the problem of regulating the residence status of illegal immigrants still needs to be solved.

NGOs and intergovernmental bodies often expose the situation of immigrants in the Dominican Republic: inhuman working environments; unhealthy housing conditions; limited freedom of movement; constant surveillance by armed guards; threats; and physical violence. For years, there was actual slavery: future emigrants were brought into the Dominican Republic by smugglers and then literally sold. This system is no longer in operation, but the situation of the immigrants remains almost unchanged. Because Haitian workers and their families lack civil status (only 5% of the 500,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic have the nationality of their adoptive country), access to social services and education is almost non-existent.

Children born to illegal immigrants in the Dominican Republic are stateless. This is in contravention of the basic rights in the Dominican constitution. With no citizenship from either country, they become, like their parents, part of a work force at the mercy and prey of a government with no scruples. Indeed, the sugar industry that employs the majority of Haitians is controlled by a state body.

The debate on immigration and the Haitian minority is an open one in the Dominican Republic, notably following a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, published in October 1999[1]. Nonetheless, in October and November 1999, for the second time in three years[2], the Dominican government carried out mass deportations of Haitians. The agreements that are regularly signed between Port-au-Prince and Santo- Domingo on immigration issues (the last one being in December 1999) are being ignored.

To understand why Haitians are leaving their country, we need to remind ourselves of the specific difficulties the country is facing. Haiti is currently going through a severe institutional crisis. It has been without a legislature for more than a year. The current Prime Minister, Jean- Edouard Alexis (who belongs to the "Lavalas Family", the party of the former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), is facing opposition both because his election was not in line with the constitution and because of his poor performance at the head of the government. The political set-up is broken up into a multitude of political groupings, the main opposition party being the Party of the People's Struggle (PFP) led by Gerard Pierre-Charles[3]. This paralysis has already led to the loss of several million dollars of international aid. Further consequences of this crisis are a slowing down of structural reform, a worsening of the economic and social situation and a growing exodus of Haitians.

Local and general elections to elect the Chamber of Deputies and two thirds of the Senate are set for March. In the space of a year and a half, the general election has been postponed three times. Some suspect that President Preval in fact wants to wait until December 2000, so that his party can gain control of Parliament on the back of the presidential elections. Whatever happens, the country will need more than the elections to get it out of its stalemate. The majority of Haitians are in fact indifferent, judging that their political leaders are unable to solve their problems.

Economic and social rights are very badly administered in this country whose economy is apathetic and where the standard of living is one of the lowest in the world. Unemployment is in the region of 50 to 70%. Although the army was demobilised in 1995, it has not yet been disarmed, which has lead to a large number of arms circulating freely in the country. Furthermore, Haiti has become a transitional country for drug trafficking in the Caribbean.

These three elements – unemployment, arms and drugs – help fuel the violence, which is becoming "privatised": it is no longer carried out only by the army or the police, but by "militant" politicians and gangsters. The new civilian police seem strangely short of funds and personnel to lead their mission effectively. Above all, the severely corrupt legal system seems incapable of dealing with crime, as a result of which nearly 90% of prisoners held are in preventive detention, and some since 1995. As long as the reform of the police and legal system is not completed, Haitians' rights will remain unprotected. Due to the presence of international organisations, the level of violence carried out by state bodies has decreased. The United Nations' General Assembly has also extended the mandate of the ICMSH (International Civil Mission to Support Haiti) to February 2001. Its main tasks are supporting the police, reforming the legal system and protecting human rights. Nevertheless, the weakness of central power and recurring political tensions (especially in the Southwest), do not create an environment conducive to respecting human rights and hinder the rapid setting up of a truly legal state.

Haiti is in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, the institutional void worries the international sponsors and does not encourage economic growth. On the other hand, while the social and economic pointers are still in the red, crime rates on are on the increase and political settlements are multiplying. As a result, the number of Haitians who want to leave at whatever cost is high. Democracy and respect for human rights in Haiti are still at an early stage, and more than ever, their future seems jeopardised.

Paulin Régnard


1. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Dominican Republic, Commission interaméricaine des droits de l'Homme, 7 octobre 1999

2. The last expulsions took place in the first month of the year 1997.

3. The OPL and "Lavalas Family" parties were originally part of Père Aristide Lavalas mouvement but are since 1997, in total disagreement with it for reasons that are both personal and political.

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