PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Impoverished Haiti, beset by spreading gang violence, worsening hunger and now cholera, is hemorrhaging refugees.
The Dominican Republic, with a population of 11 million, is home to more than 500,000 Haitians. The country, more stable and prosperous than its neighbor, deported more than 170,000 people in 2022, government data shows; most were Haitians. That was more than double the number from the year before.
In January, authorities picked up the pace, removing 23,500 more.
“Never before has any government done so much to protect the integrity of the Dominican Republic along its border,” President Luis Abinader told the country’s National Assembly last month, to applause.
Some migrants and their advocates see an element of racism in the policy. The U.S. State Department has warned American travelers that the crackdown “may lead to increased interaction with Dominican authorities, especially for darker-skinned U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens of African descent.”
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, among others, has called for the removals to end.
Haitian deportees, including unaccompanied minors, have told The Washington Post of being arrested without explanation and held in overcrowded and unsanitary spaces with little or no food or water before being sent back to a country where they fear for their lives.
Manoucheka Saint-Fleur, a 32-year-old office cleaner, fled Haiti in 2020 after five police officers in Port-au-Prince were shot to death. She says she was detained in the Dominican Republic on her way to work one day, jammed into a packed yellow bus and driven to the border. She says authorities beat and Tasered migrants and fired tear gas into the bus.
The Dominican Republic’s Foreign and Immigration ministries did not respond to The Post’s questions about the campaign. But in public comments, Dominican officials have rejected criticism. Given the chaos next door — Abinader has called it a “low-intensity civil war” — the removals are necessary, they say. They deny that they’re abusing migrants. And they chide the international community for failing to ease Haiti’s crises.
When the United Nations urged a halt to the removals, Abinader was defiant: Not only would they continue but they would increase, he said. “Never before,” he boasted last month, has his country “shown so much firmness in our immigration policy, in line with human rights, but without hesitation when it comes to its application.”
Some Dominicans accuse critics of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and, in nativist tones, rail against the “Haitianization” of their country. They say it’s unfair to single out the country that has borne the brunt of the Haitian exodus for criticism when other countries have been similarly unwelcoming.
The Bahamas, another common destination for fleeing Haitians, announced its own crackdown last month. U.S. officials this month defended the U.S. removal of Haitians before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Bridget Wooding, director of the Observatory of Caribbean Migrants, said that “deportations are episodically used in the Dominican Republic for political ends,” but that the current crackdown is notable for the numbers of people being swept up.
It’s disproportionately affecting “older women, pregnant women, postpartum women and children,” she said, even though they’re supposed to be protected from deportation by Dominican legislation, binational agreements and international conventions.
The migrant aid group Fondation Zanmi Timoun operates a center in the Haitian border community of Belladère. In the last half of 2022, spokesman Joseph Richard Fortuné says, it received more than 760 deported unaccompanied minors, including several pregnant girls with disabilities.
Most of the children had been detained, he says, sometimes for longer than a week. Some had been separated from their parents. Among the deportees, Fortuné says, was a 16-year-old Black girl who had been stopped on her way to school, despite being a Dominican citizen — evidence, he says, of “a racism component” in the removals.
“We’ve always had deportations,” he said. “But what we’ve seen since July is unprecedented.”
The developments are inflaming long-fraught relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The migration of Creole-speaking Haitians to the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic dates back more than a century. Haitians have long been employed — legally and otherwise — in low-wage jobs many Dominicans are loath to perform, particularly in construction and agriculture.
Haiti is one of the Dominican Republic’s main trading partners, and families and friendships span the border. But the neighboring countries are, in many ways, worlds apart.
The Dominican Republic, a tourist magnet, is one of Latin America’s economic successes.
Haiti, in contrast, has long been the hemisphere’s poorest country, buffeted by a cycle of dictatorship and violent political chaos. Its presidency has been vacant since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, and the National Assembly empty since the last senators’ terms expired in January without new elections.
The government, such as it is, is led by Ariel Henry, appointed prime minister by Moïse two days before his death and now linked to a suspect in the still-unsolved plot to kill the president. But considerable power is wielded by the violent armed gangs that control much of Port-au-Prince.
Doctors Without Borders cited “intolerable risks” this month when it suspended operations at a medical facility in the Cité Soleil slum of the capital. “We are looking at a war scene just meters from our hospital,” medical adviser Vincent Harris said.
The Dominican Republic, stealing a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, began building its border fence last year. The Abinader administration says it should be finished by May 2024 — just in time, as it happens, for general elections.
In Haiti, meanwhile, the Support Group for Refugees and Returnees is struggling to cope with the volume of deportees. Rigard Orbé, who heads the office in the border city of Belladère, says it received twice as many deported pregnant women last year as in 2021.
Josué Azor, a 36-year-old freelance photographer based in Port-au-Prince, flew to the Dominican Republic in December for a work assignment. While out one day in Las Terrenas, a coastal resort 100 miles from Santo Domingo, he says, he and a colleague were arrested for what they were told were immigration violations.
Azor says he offered repeatedly to show authorities his documents, but they weren’t interested. He was detained with other Haitians for three hours in the blazing Dominican sun, while police splashed some with a “nasty liquid,” before he was released without explanation.
“It was clear that it was something against Haitians,” Azor said. “I guess that my gestures, the language we speak on the street made them see that we were Haitian. … It’s xenophobia.”
Junior Laurent, 22, was born to Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic, where he grew up and still lives. Anti-Haitian discrimination has grown so severe, he says, that his family now rarely ventures out.
He made an exception in January to buy juice near his home. Authorities detained him without asking any questions. Two days later, he was deported to Haiti.
“If you are Black, they will arrest you,” he said. “It’s humiliating what they did to me.”
Emmanuel Blaise, a house painter, was arrested on his way home from work in January. In detention, he says, authorities beat him. He says the officers who arrested him said they could prevent his removal — for 15,000 Dominican pesos.
That was more than he could afford. He was deported.
“I paid to get in,” Blaise said. “The same officers who help you get in are the same ones who will arrest you and bring you back.”
Ana Vanessa Herrero contributed to this report.