Globe and Mail- On a bridge between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – the Caribbean’s poorest country and its largest economy – would-be migrants tell The Globe about dawn raids, extortions, mass deportations and other hardships
The Globe and Mail Ouanaminthe, Haiti
At 5 a.m. one recent Thursday, Jacksin Jean-Louis awoke to armed men bursting into his house.
The 28-year-old construction worker, along with his wife and toddler daughter, had been swept up in a raid by immigration authorities on his neighbourhood in Santiago de los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city. Mr. Jean-Louis, his family and dozens of other Haitian migrants were swiftly loaded onto a bus and deported.
“They didn’t knock on the door. They just broke in. They made us scared and we started running when they got inside,” he recounted at a shelter in Ouanaminthe, a bustling border community on the Haitian side, as he bounced his daughter on his knee. “They packed us in one on top of another in the bus. It was very frightening.”
Mr. Jean-Louis had lived in the Dominican Republic for two years, he said, looking for escape from Haiti’s privations and violence, and a path to a better life. In his spare time, he had been building a solar-powered generator. The idea was to take it around to other Haitians without access to electricity, offering them the chance to charge their phones or plug in TVs to watch soccer matches. He was forced to leave it behind, along with all of his possessions, when he was arrested.
Officers even stole cash, mobile phones and other valuables from the houses of the people they were rounding up, Mr. Jean-Louis said.
“There is no way to live in Haiti. If I could find a job here, I wouldn’t have to go to the DR,” he said. “I have to try to go back. We don’t know where we’re going to sleep.”
Escalating crises in Haiti have caused a growing exodus from the country, with migrants travelling by boat or on foot, sometimes for thousands of kilometres, triggering a backlash across the continent. The U.S. tightened restrictions on asylum seekers at its southern border in January. Last month, Canada began immediately deporting migrants trying to enter through the unofficial crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec. Both countries are mulling sending an international security force to Haiti.
Nowhere are these tensions stronger than in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean’s largest economy has long been a draw for residents of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, which shares the island of Hispaniola.
Over the past year, Dominican President Luis Abinader has ordered mass deportations of Haitians, totalling about 200,000 so far. He has also begun building a wall along the border. The deportations have functioned as an extortion racket, say some of those caught by the dragnet, with DR police and soldiers demanding bribes in exchange for letting migrants go.
But amid persistent unemployment, daily gang shootouts and kidnappings, and chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine, many Haitians don’t see much choice but to keep trying to reach the Dominican Republic.
Standing in the middle of the bridge that connects Ouanaminthe to the Dominican town of Dajabon as a 36-degree sun beat down, Delana Grandpierre said she had just been turned back at the border for the third time while trying to take her one-year-old daughter to a doctor. “She has stomach pain. She’s crying every day,” said Ms. Grandpierre, 31. “It’s very difficult.”
For four years, she lived in the DR, working on the cleaning staff for a small-town mayor’s office. She was deported last month, along with her husband and four children, she said.
Jeff Dorvilias, 30, said he had a job for seven months at a call centre in Santiago. Then, while walking to the gym one day, two immigration officers on motorcycles stopped him in the street and threw him into the back of a pickup truck with 20 other deportees. They were first taken to a detention centre, where the guards waited for the Haitians’ families to buy their freedom, he said.
Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t bribe the officers were then deported. Mr. Dorvilias’s protestations that he had a work permit were to no avail. “If I’d had money, I probably would have gotten off.”
Tony Joivil, who lives in Haiti and works at a market on the Dominican side of the border, said guards have previously arrested him and driven him to a military base, demanding money to let him go. He paid the equivalent of about $12, he said.
“They know clearly that you’re not an illegal immigrant, but they pretend they’re going to deport you. Sometimes they keep people several days until they pay,” the 33-year-old said.
Elizabeth Cherenfant, who works with Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés, a non-profit helping recently deported Haitians at the border, said such stories are common.
The lack of beds and toilets in some detention facilities mean people will even pay just to get deported more quickly. In at least one case that she knows of, guards demanded sex in exchange for a woman’s freedom.
“The deportations happen indiscriminately. Sometimes they arrest people at work. They arrest people at home. They go into hospitals and take women from their beds. People come barefoot or without their shirts. We’ve seen naked children,” she said at her office in a trailer in Ouanaminthe.
Even the physical dividing line between the two countries here is testament to their violent history: The Massacre River was named for the 17th-century killing of French buccaneers by Spanish settlers during the struggle by the two colonial powers for control of the island. Its moniker gained renewed relevance during the 1937 mass killings of Haitians in the Dominican borderlands by the forces of dictator Rafael Trujillo.
The income divide is entwined with linguistic and racial ones. In the Spanish-speaking DR, most of the population identifies as mixed race. Creole-speaking Haiti is predominantly Black.
Construction on the wall along the Dominican side of the river is proceeding apace. A concrete base has been installed and a chain-link fence strung with razor wire is taking shape on top. North of the bridge, a new guard tower is going up.
Rev. Osvaldo Concepcion, a Jesuit priest who helps supply food and water to detained migrants in Dajabon, said Mr. Abinader’s crackdown is both inhumane and ineffective. “The migration phenomenon is a business. Dominican authorities deport Haitians and, a few hours later, the deportees go back across the border by paying the same authorities,” he said.
Father Concepcion argued that the U.S., Canada and other countries must step up to help Haiti, including by building hospitals and schools, investing in agriculture, training local police and cutting off the supply of illegal guns reaching the country.
“It’s an ethical imperative. We cannot leave alone our brothers who are next to us,” he said. “But military intervention – I don’t think that’s the solution. We’ve already seen that experience.”
The United Nations kept international troops in Haiti for 15 years until 2019. During that time, the peacekeepers were credited with containing the gangs, but were also connected to a cholera outbreak, a sex extortion ring and the shooting of civilians.
“We don’t need any foreign force to come fix Haiti,” said Gladimy Compere, 37, who works as a translator for other Haitians on the Dominican side of the border. “It happened in the past and we didn’t see any change.”
Others, however, said they would welcome anyone willing to fight the gangs. U.S. President Joe Biden has been pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to assemble such a force, but Mr. Trudeau has so far expressed reluctance.
“The military should have come already,” said Jocelyn Theodore, a 50-year-old Haitian selling shoes at the market in Dajabon. “They could create a climate where people could walk around.”
Late one recent afternoon, a yellow school bus and a white transport truck rolled up to the border bridge. Inside, deportees were packed into every available space, pressing through the bars of cages installed in the vehicles. Scratched off the side of the bus, but still clearly legible, was the name of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District in upstate New York – a reminder of its distant, second-hand provenance.
Dominican border guards threw open the doors and began hustling people across to the Haitian side.
Jean Phillipe said he had lived in the Dominican for 18 years before he was arrested with his four grandchildren at home in the city of Mao.
Gesnal Duval said he was arrested along with his wife and three children, and that officers stole all of his family’s money and their phones. “We haven’t caused any problems,” he said. “They took every Haitian on the block where I live.”
Kule Adony, a 25-year-old welder, said he had been in the DR for seven years, living in Sosua, a beach town on the country’s north coast. He had been held in detention for a week, he said. “The Dominicans have used us up,” he said, “and now they’re throwing us out.”