Hostile Neighbors: The Plight of Haitian Migrant Workers in the Dominican Republic

By Courtney Cox

The Dominican Republic and Haiti have shared the island of Hispaniola for centuries. Historically, their relationship is a hostile and complex one. During the early twentieth century (under the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic), many Haitians seeking opportunity journeyed across the border to the Dominican Republic as migrant workers on sugarcane plantations. The working conditions they experienced were degrading: they often lived in run-down company homes without plumbing or electricity, food was sparse, and medical services were practically non-existent. Most Dominicans refused to work under the awful conditions, crystallizing a national attitude of inherent Haitian inferiority.                  
No one perpetuated this national attitude more than tyrant Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina who controlled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. Although he had Haitian ancestors, he promoted an antihaitiansimo ideology. His racist policies culminated in his 1937 order for the extermination of all peoples of Haitian descent in the Northwest. Given the mélange races in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, one may wonder, what methods did officers use to identify Haitians? After all, ninety percent of Dominicans have African lineage. To solve this dilemma, officers were instructed to have people suspected of being Haitian to pronounce the word perejil (parsley). Improper pronunciation of the ‘r’ sound in perejil resulted in immediate execution. Twenty to thirty thousand Haitians were assassinated during the massacre.

Despite this horrific history, 500,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent are currently living in the Dominican Republic and are subject to antihaitiansimo reflected in the Dominican Republic’s discriminatory policies geared toward migrant workers. The Dominican Republic’s recent withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) is illustrative of the country’s refusal to reform its policies plagued by discrimination and inequality. 

The Dominican Republic’s rapport with the IACHR has been a turbulent one. IACHR is one of the principal organs of the Organization of American States charged with the promotion and protection of human rights in the hemisphere. The Dominican Republic ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, and in 1999, it submitted to the jurisdiction of the IACHR. Despite being bound by its obligations, the country has systemically violated international law. The same year of the country’s submission to the Court’s jurisdiction, the Inter-American Commission exposed the disturbing conditions of migrant workers in a report. The report indicated that Haitians have been victims of “a whole array of abuses by the authorities, from assassinations, abusive treatment, massive expulsions, exploitation, deplorable living conditions, and the failure to recognize their labor rights.”

The reports of mass expulsions in the Commission’s report derive from Dominican President Balaguer’s Decree 233 forwarded in 1991. Under the decree, undocumented Haitians under the age of sixteen and over the age of sixty present in the Dominican Republic were to be deported. Although less cold-blooded, the decree was reminiscent of Trujillo’s 1937 decree because many of those deported were actually Dominican citizens simply perceived to be Haitian (a perception often based solely on skin hues). Even worse was the state’s implementation of deportations across the river. The deportation procedures were devoid of due process. According to the Commission’s report, the deportees were often detained with meager or no food rations, and even beaten in some cases. In other cases, Dominican authorities would detain migrant workers, destroy their identification, and force them to return to Haiti. 

The Commission’s initial condemnation of Dominican treatment of migrant workers did not end in 1999. The country’s failure to ameliorate its policies and migrant worker conditions led to the Commission’s issuance of several denouncing reports, and ultimately led to cases before the Court. More recently, in September 2013, a Dominican court held that illegal migrant workers’ children born in the Dominican Republic were denied automatic citizenship, leaving innocent children stateless. The Dominican court’s holding also applies retroactively to children descended from undocumented Haitian parents. The impact of this ruling is endless: Haitian migrant parents “cannot register the births of their children, vote, access health care coverage, or open bank accounts.” Also, the court’s ruling severely limits children’s access to education. The IACHR found that the court’s holding was discriminatory towards Dominicans of Haitian descent, and gave the country six months to invalidate the court’s ruling.

Additionally, in the Case of Dominican and Haitian People Expelled v. the Dominican Republic, the IACHR held that the state’s discriminatory policies violated several rights under the American Convention on Human Rights including the right to a nationality, a fair trial, equal protection before the law, and the guarantee of non-discrimination. For the Dominican Republic, this holding was the straw that broke the camels’ back.

In September 2014, the Dominican Republic withdrew from the jurisdiction of the Court. Fooling no one, the Dominican Constitutional Court justified the withdrawal on constitutional grounds, claiming that the senate never issued a resolution to ratify the submission to the jurisdiction of the IACHR.

It is not hard to read between the lines in this case. The Dominican Republic’s refusal to modify its policies based on the Inter-American Commission and Court’s findings, and its ultimate withdrawal from the Court’s jurisdiction proves that the state is obstinately unwilling to eliminate discriminatory practices. The United Nations Population Fund claims that the Dominican citizenship reform denying illegal migrant workers’ children citizenship could strip as many as 200,000 people of their nationality. Without the oversight of an effective regional system, the human rights of migrant workers and their descendants is sadly bleak. The Dominican Republic’s acts evince alarming historical continuity.