By Emma Fawcett*
Tensions stemming from the Dominican Republic’s forced repatriation of Haitians are spilling over into other aspects of the traditionally problematic relations between the two countries, with little prospect of resolution. Over the summer, the Dominican Republic began a forced repatriation process for Haitians who did not comply with its 2014 National Plan for the Regularization of Foreigners. After a temporary suspension prompted by international outrage, deportations resumed on August 15 at a rate of 50 to 100 per day, and the International Organization for Migration reports that many more Haitians are “spontaneously returning.” Of the half million previously found to be without residency permits, about 288,000 people registered for the regularization process –180,000 of whom were rejected and are likely to be repatriated. According to Amnesty International, 27 percent of those who have left voluntarily say they were born in the Dominican Republic, but they fear arrest or harassment because they lack proper documentation. At least four camps filled with recent deportees have sprung up on the Haitian side of the border, and the United Nations Human Rights Council has warned that conditions are abysmal and sanitation facilities inadequate. The Haitian government has promised to assist in resettlement efforts, but there has been no coordinated response. At the Tête à l’Eau camp, the government initially provided $30 in assistance to deportees, but ran out of funds.
In retaliation, Haiti on October 1 began enforcing a ban on the overland importation of 23 Dominican goods, including wheat flour, cooking oil, and soap. These products must now enter by boat or plane to Port-au-Prince or Cap Haïtien. Smugglers found in violation of the new regulation will have their goods confiscated. Originally announced a year ago as a way of increasing customs revenue and reducing smuggling, the measure is expected to cause prices for staples to increase by up to 40 percent in Haiti and will cost the Dominican Republic $500 million in trade revenue. A Dominican Chamber of Commerce official noted that the measure “violates norms of free bilateral commerce and international agreements.” Market women who run much of Haiti’s informal economy by acquiring goods across the border and bringing them home to sell have already faced difficulties since the Dominican immigration crackdown began, and the trade ban poses a further threat to their livelihoods and those of their customers. The Association of Haitian Industry (ADIH) hopes that the measure will improve demand for domestic products. The Dominican government and businesses have argued that trade and migration issues should remain separate matters.
The new, slower pace of deportations has allowed the Dominican government to continue with their original strategy while avoiding further media attention and threats to their tourism industry. Ongoing presidential campaigns in both countries – with Haiti’s elections on October 25 and Dominican President Medina seeking reelection next May – have made the antagonism politically useful for both. However, the heaviest costs, including deportations, resettlement in makeshift camps, and potentially dramatic increases in food prices, are, as usual, borne by Haiti’s poorest. A recent World Bank report on Haiti noted that “a social contract is missing between the State and its citizens,” and the Haitian government’s inability to provide for returnees and short-sighted trade policy is clear evidence of that. The international community – the OAS in particular – has made serious missteps in its efforts to encourage bilateral talks, including a call for dialogue by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro that was misinterpreted as a call for the unification of Hispaniola. In response, the Dominican press has doubled down on its inflammatory rhetoric. Neither side sees advantage to ending the stalemate, at least until after the Haitian electoral process has concluded.
October 6, 2015
*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.