Dominican Republic has taken citizenship from up to 200,000 and is getting away with it

Applicants queue up for foreign residency permits in Dominican Republic. EPA

On June 17, the deadline ran out for undocumented Haitian migrants to register for official migrant status in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The international media has been filled with reports from the Caribbean of an impending crisis in the DR, predicting that up to 500,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent are now threatened with forcible removal.

The country’s vice minister of the interior has confirmed that those who have failed to register in time will be made to leave the country. The media has been speculating that mass deportations to Haiti will follow, though the government has been insisting it will act modestly.

What is in danger of being forgotten is that there are two distinct groups of people involved here. Although there is understandable concern for first-generation Haitians resident in the Dominican Republic, up to 200,000 people born and raised in the country who have always self-identified as Dominicans are now being told that they are Haitians and are at risk of forcible removal from the only place they call home (note that the government claims the numbers are far lower).

To the outside world, first-generation Haitian migrants and Dominican citizens of Haitian descent might seem more or less the same. Most are black and live in abject poverty. Both groups have been made to overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles to obtain documentation requested by the DR authorities to remain in the country. Some in the media talk about the two groups interchangeably. But in relation to the Dominicans of Haitian descent, the government’s position is particularly serious: it would appear to have initially succeeded at washing its hands of them by making them illegal immigrants in their country of birth.

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The background

For decades, undocumented black Dominicans born in the country – many of whom are of Haitian descent –- were met with distrust by the authorities. Some were rounded up and forcibly removed to Haiti for not possessing paperwork. In recent years, and many miles from the border, Dominicans of Haitian descent would have to produce their ID cards to prove their nationality to effectively avoid expulsion to a foreign country.

The Dominican authorities now say that for more than 80 years they made a mistake when registering these people. In 2013 the constitutional court ruled that they were supposed to have inherited the “illegal” migrant status of their parents, and should never have become Dominicans in the first place. Former president Leonel Fernández stated at the time

If [the ruling] is retroactive then there has been a problem determining the legal status of people living in the country. They have been under the impression that they are Dominican and at some point were even in possession of DR paperwork. Something like that can lead to other types of problems.

Well, quite. The court ordered that those affected be stripped of their birthright Dominican citizenship. As a consequence they were made to re-register as foreign nationals in their country of birth.

Faced with regional pressure from the likes of the Caribbean Community, the DR softened its position last year by introducing new rules for the people affected. People in group A were told to get their Dominican birth certificates “validated” and apply for citizenship ahead of a deadline that expired in February. Those in group B who were born in the Dominican Republic with no birth certificates were told to apply as foreigners for a residency permit. Fewer than 9,000 registered ahead of the deadline.

An opportunity to register for permits also applied to the country’s Haitian migrants, along with the large majority in group A who had missed the February deadline. The reason why many now face expulsion is because they have either not registered or not received their paperwork in time. (I have explained the background in more detail here).

Waiting to register outside ministry of the interior. EPA

Expulsions not deportations

What therefore began as a citizenship crisis concerning potential arbitrary expulsions of former Dominican nationals retroactively stripped of their birthright nationality has been overshadowed by the plight of another group of people as stories have emerged of Haitian migrants struggling to register with the DR authorities.

But make no mistake about the precarious situation of the Dominicans of Haitian descent. Most have never been to Haiti and speak Spanish as their mother tongue, not Haitian Creole. For those unable to register in time, the documentation they possess proving their Dominican citizenship is no longer worth the paper it is written on. This is not a case of unwanted migrants from elsewhere, but of unwanted citizens rendered stateless in their own country and made to leave. They are being treated as Haitian migrants being deported, but there is a difference: you can’t deport your own nationals.

In recent weeks, the papers in Europe have been crammed with images of migrants drowning in Mediterranean waters. A particularly tasteless piece in May reported how the physical presence of those who had reached dry land on the Greek island of Kos apparently made some tourists feel “uncomfortable”. Westerners locked away in their resorts in the Dominican Republic, however, will not have to endure the same hardship as European holidaymakers. Indeed, most will be blissfully unaware that one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the Western hemisphere is happening right now on their doorstep. With the world’s leaders seemingly unwilling to intervene, the sad reality is that few will probably care.

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