A Doll’s Tale
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There’s a doll found everywhere in the Dominican Republic, a celebrated local handicraft known as the Muñecas Limé, usually sporting a braid, a dress and a hat, and carrying a basket of fruit or flowers. The colors vary, but the face never does.
This doll, representing Dominicans, never has one.
“We’re all mixed up, black, white, Taíno, immigrants,” a salesman at a shop in the capital Santa Domingo explained, detailing the fusion of cultures and races that make up Dominicans today. “This lack of a face represents the (diversity) in everyone here. That’s why we don’t have problems with racism.”
This inclusive spirit, however, is being undermined these days by the chaos in neighboring Haiti and the influx of its desperate citizens into the country, say locals. This migration has also become all anyone here can talk about.
“The crisis is on TV constantly,” said Jose Leroux, a civil engineer, explaining the topic’s dominance on the streets. “And while many Dominicans disagree, I think we could be doing more to help.”
Tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, go back centuries. In the mid-1800s, for example, Haiti controlled and brutalized the inhabitants of Santa Domingo for decades – until they revolted and won independence in 1844.
Since that time, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have crossed the border to settle in the Dominican Republic – a country of 11 million people. But a trifecta of tragedy over the past two years involving a massive earthquake, the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, and exploding gang warfare that has impacted daily living by disrupting water supplies, for example, has led Haitian migration to surge from about 800,000 migrants in 2017 to two million this year, according to William Charpantier of Haitian migrant rights group MENAMIRD.
The situation has become so dire that in October Haiti requested a United
Nations peacekeeping force to help stabilize the situation, a request the UN is considering. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic says it has been abandoned by the international community to deal with the situation next door, even as it struggles with its own problems – skyrocketing inflation, endemic corruption, and a spike in crime that includes a rash of disappearances that Dominicans have taken to documenting on Instagram for want of police help.
Frustrated and with an eye toward elections in two years, the Dominican government is cracking down on migration: Police officers and the military are raiding farms and building sites and detaining Haitians for deportation. Some of the deported are, however, Dominican citizens. And in one case that made international headlines, two were US citizens.
Officials, essentially, are detaining “all those who look like Haitians,” Charpantier told Al Jazeera. “People with valid documents have been deported, people who were born here in the Dominican Republic have been deported. These aren’t deportations. It’s persecution based on race.”
The government denies that race is the motivation. Instead, officials say that Haitian migration is straining resources and poses a security threat, especially regarding gang violence spilling into the Dominican Republic along with smuggled guns, drugs, and other goods.
The deportations are popular with the public, too, according to polls.
Meanwhile, analysts explain the surging migration is heightening bias that has always existed in the Dominican Republic, explaining how Dominicans have long felt culturally and racially superior to Haitians, who have worked as migrant labor in the low-paid agriculture and construction sectors for decades.
At the same time, Dominican fears of being ‘Haitianised’ is a phenomenon that goes back almost a century and has led to violence in the past. As a result, migrant rights groups say Haitians – or those who could be mistaken for Haitian – are being treated more harshly than others such as Venezuelans.
“The Venezuelan people have a clear path to legal status, whereas the Haitians don’t,” Bridget Wooding of the Caribbean Migration Observatory told DailyChatter. “There’s a hierarchy of migrants, and Haitian migrant labor can be used as a race card,” to bring up Dominicans’ already negative feelings toward Haitians, she added.
Meanwhile, the situation is causing a backlash internationally.
The US, which has deported thousands of Haitian migrants this year, has warned Black Americans to be careful while visiting the Dominican Republic because “authorities have not (in some cases) respected these individuals’ legal status in the Dominican Republic or nationality.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, meanwhile, called on the Dominican Republic to stop “xenophobia and discrimination” in its deportations of Haitians.
Dominican President Luis Abinader and other officials have rejected such criticisms, responding angrily to the UN and the US, calling their stance “unacceptable and irresponsible.” “The Dominican Republic isn’t just going to continue the deportations, we will increase them,” he added.
Still, critics say politics is also driving the deportations, with officials looking ahead to elections in two years. “The mobilization of migration enforcement is a sure-fire way to help government look strong on policy,” migration researcher, Yoana Kuzmova, told DailyChatter.
The Dominican media, meanwhile, is echoing the call to send Haitians back across the border, with popular talk show host Camila Garcia commenting, “Haiti has asked the UN to intervene but the UN won’t. Is the country where Volker Türk comes from, Austria, taking in Haitian migrants? Maybe we should deport them to Austria?”
In the end, Haitians’ desperation won’t likely lessen anytime soon. And that means the furor next door will go on.
—Michael Scaturro, Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, for DailyChatter