The Dominican Republic (DR) shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The latter is the most economically deprived country in the region, and Haiti's large African descendant population has sometimes been described as a marginalized majority.
The majority of the population of the DR is of mixed African descent, and many Dominicans have Haitian ancestors and connections. Despite this, anti-Haitian feeling is rife. Haitians represent a substantial minority of up to 1 million people within the DR, and form a distinct cultural and linguistic group. Relations between Haiti and the DR have often been contentious, primarily as a result of treatment of the Haitian migrant population in the DR, many of whom are undocumented.
In January 2010, Haiti was hit with a massive magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake, whose epicentre was approximately 25 km west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. Two months after the earthquake, the government's Directorate of Civil Protection stated that an estimated 222,517 people had died and another 310,928 were injured. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 460 camps with a total population of 1,170,000 people in Port-au-Prince alone. The vast majority of the displaced population in camps were children.
The earthquake caused major damage in the capital. Almost 250,000 residences, 30,000 commercial buildings and more than 1,300 schools and 50 health care facilities were destroyed.
The DR was the first country to provide aid to Haiti, including water, mobile medical units, health personnel, communications technicians, food and heavy-lifting machinery to aid rescue efforts. Hospitals in the DR were made available, and the airport opened to receive aid destined for Haiti. Immediately following the disaster, towns in the eastern DR began preparing for tens of thousands of refugees. However, given the history of thorny relations between the two countries, the border was reinforced by Dominican soldiers, and officials indicated that all Haitians who entered for medical assistance would be allowed to stay only temporarily. By 16 January, hospitals close to the border had become filled to capacity, with some institutions running out of critical medical supplies. The DR won international praise for its commitment to helping Haiti recover, however the long history of intolerance and discrimination against its Haitian migrant minority continued to influence local responses to the disaster.
Every year, the DR repatriates thousands of undocumented Haitians. According to a report from the Universidad Centroamericana, between 2003 and 2008 Dominican authorities deported an average of 20,417 Haitians a year. At the end of 2010, the Dominican migration director, Sigfrido Pared Perez, estimated that the earthquake had resulted in a 15 per cent increase in the estimated 1 million Haitian migrant population.
The issue of trafficking of Haitian children – a cause for concern by rights activists even before the earthquake – came under special scrutiny after the disaster. On 5 February, ten DR-based Baptist missionaries from Idaho, USA, were charged with criminal association and kidnapping for trying to smuggle 33 children out of Haiti into the DR. The missionaries claimed they were rescuing orphaned children, but investigations revealed that more than 20 of the children had been taken from their parents after they were told their offspring would have a better life in America. The leader of the group was held in custody and the others deported.
At the official level at any rate, the earthquake offered an opportunity for some degree of reconciliation between the two countries. In July 2010, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez Fernandez met with Haitian President René Preval. They pledged to cooperate closely in several areas, such as agriculture, trade, education and health and to re-address traditionally contentious issues such as migration. The DR also promised ongoing assistance. What form this will actually take is hard to determine, given the state of rebuilding efforts.
Ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti
Following the January quake, some US $1.1 billion was collected for relief efforts by 23 major charities, however by July 2010 only 2 per cent of the money had actually been released. By October 2010, organizations such as Refugees International were characterizing aid agency efforts in Haiti as 'dysfunctional' and 'inexperienced'. By the end of 2010, almost no transitional housing had been built, and Haitians were still living in a state of emergency. There were 1.6 million displaced people still in tent camps, most of which had no electricity, running water or sewage disposal. There were also increasing reports of gang leaders and landowners intimidating the displaced. Women and young girls in the crowded camps were at particular risk of sexual violence and the UN force was accused of not doing enough to protect them. Additionally, by the end of the year, the Haiti Recovery Commission led by former US President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to facilitate reconstruction projects had not begun any major reconstruction work. Some 98 per cent of the rubble from the quake – an estimated 20 million cubic metres – had still not been cleared. Critics also note that existing transitional housing and other rebuilding plans are aimed exclusively at neighbourhoods and homeowners, making no allowances for the estimated 200,000 'propertyless poor', who were living in rented property at the time the disaster struck.
The situation was compounded in October by the outbreak of a cholera epidemic, the first to hit the country in 200 years. With health officials speculating about the origin of the disease and suggesting it may have entered via a UN peacekeeper, numerous angry demonstrations erupted against the 'blue helmets' and foreign aid workers in general. Regardless of the source, continuing limited access to clean water and sanitation did much to aid the spread of the disease. By the end of 2010, the Haitian health ministry announced that more than 2,500 people had died.
The cholera outbreak once again tested cross-border relations and the general perception of Haitians in the DR. It prompted officials to close the border and introduce strict rules for entry, in order to prevent the spread of the disease. This had a direct effect on the many Haitians who regularly cross into the DR to trade. However, the cholera outbreak was just one more reminder of the lack of overall progress in recovery efforts, according to a report by Oxfam, raising the possibility of increased migration of Haitians into the DR.
In November 2010, the situation prompted Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean, who recently served as the Governor-General of Canada and was appointed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Special Envoy for Haiti, to co-author a public letter with UNESCO head Irina Bokova. It placed much of the blame for the slow recovery on the international development community and charged its members with abandoning their commitments. According to Jean, 'As time passes, what began as a natural disaster is becoming a disgraceful reflection on the international community.'
Observers note that the rebuilding phase has once again revealed the uncertain nature of long-term post-disaster assistance, and reinforced the importance of improving DR-Haiti relations, especially in regard to the issue of migration. For one thing, the lack of progress in post-earthquake rebuilding further stalls the growth of the Haitian economy, and especially the possibility of local employment in the construction sector. This is perhaps ironic since construction is one of the major sources of employment for Haitian migrants to the DR. At the end of 2010, therefore, it was clear that economic migration from Haiti to the DR would continue, at least in the short term. Despite the history of prejudice and discrimination, the island neighbours are well aware of the importance of migrant labour to the DR economy, as well as of the value of cooperation. The fact is that while international relief may have received significant media coverage, in the end much of the rescue effort was actually conducted by Haitians themselves, with the DR being the first country on the scene to lend a helping hand.
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