The Paradoxes of the Haitian Diaspora
- Its people provide an economic engine for those back home. Yet many live in poverty or are exploited as a casual labor force earning less-than-poverty wages.
- They offer cultural richness and skills to their adopted lands. Yet they can be targets of devastating rights abuses.
- Many Haitians have been legally part of their new lands for years. Yet the receiving governments often deny basic necessities of health care, decent housing and schooling for lack of a birth certificate.
This article examines these three paradoxes, often caused by government immigration policies for Haitians who live scattered.
Economic Recovery Engine or Exploited Labor?
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “Half a million people born in Haiti live in the United States, and estimates put several hundred thousand in Canada and as many as 100,000 in France. Those migrants send home $1.9 billion in remittances [transfers of money]—double the official aid flows and equal to 30 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product.”
The exact figure is probably higher, says Gérard Férère in a report to the Haitian ambassador to the United States in 1999. Abrams doesn’t mention another estimated 800,000 living in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations.
Nearly 80 percent of adult Haitians living in the United States report sending contributions to fund Haiti earthquake and hurricane recovery in the past year. According to the World Bank, transfers of funds from Diaspora to family and friends in Haiti could jump by 20 percent—as much as $360 million. The extension of temporary protective status to undocumented Haitian workers in the United States could bump the total to an extra $1 billion over three years.
Paradoxically, some Haitians among the Diaspora face appalling economic hardship yet still send remittances home. Many of them live in the Dominican Republic. As James Ferguson points out in his report for the Minority Rights Group International, “For decades they have been crossing the border, either by invitation or illegally, to work on sugar plantations or in other agricultural or manual employment, doing the work that Dominicans have traditionally refused to do. Haitians are both needed and widely disparaged as a migrant minority.”
The Haitian cane-cutters live in establishments called bateyes—cabins—or “shantytowns” with few comforts and poor sanitation and construction. Many are malnourished.
Women face particular hardships, writes Ferguson, citing an International Confederation of Free Trade Unions report. “Their presence in the bateyes is not acknowledged,” though they constitute some five percent of cane-cutters. As a consequence Haitian women say they have no right to housing or to health services. Also, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they are paid half of what male cutters receive.
Ferguson summarizes: “The central paradox of this cross-border traffic is that Haitian labor is essential to the Dominican economy, while Haitians are viewed as a threat, both demographic and cultural, to the Dominican Republic.” Haitians today are working in other Dominican Republic sectors, such as domestic help and hotel cleaning.
The racist view underneath the “threat”—that lighter-skinned Spanish speaking Dominicans are superior to darker skinned Creole speaking Haitians—was enthusiastically supported by the Dominican dictator Trujillo and continues to be embedded in immigration policies affecting Haitians to this day.
Cultural Riches versus Rights Abuses
A second paradox of the Diaspora is the disparity between the creative cultural contributions to their new lands and the mistreatment of Haitians through denial of simple human rights.
Where the people of the Diaspora are, there are literary and artistic achievements of Haitians. These range from iconography used in worship to embroidery sold in the local markets, from the novels of Edwidge Danticat to music sung in church and the concert hall. Such artistic energies have been cited as the source for Haitian resilience in the face of disasters.
A photographer touring Port-au-Prince and Léogâne after the quake noted that in the emerging tent cities were springing up exhibits of paintings. A work from one artist, Frantz Zéphirin, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker magazine. “Never throughout its history has Haiti had such a wealth of knowledgeable professionals, technicians, and skilled workers,” asserts Gérard Férère.
Yet Haitians are no strangers to abuses of their human rights.
Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are particularly vulnerable, often landing in a stateless unprotected “no-go zone” without constitutional protection. James Ferguson says that the Dominican government recognizes, in principle, that “all persons born in the territory of the Dominican Republic are Dominican citizens.” http://www.oas.org/atip/regional%20reports/migrationinthecaribbean.pdf
But, he continues, “A loophole allows the authorities to deny the children of undocumented Haitians such citizenship, since they are judged to be ‘in transit.’”
Being an undocumented Haitian in the Dominican Republic prevents the most ordinary of transactions, reports Ferguson. Furthermore, people without documents are more likely to be arrested and held for often trivial offenses. Expulsion, with no due process, is the most common remedy.
In other Caribbean countries, discrimination and anti-Haitian feeling take many forms. Newspaper editorials blame the “invasion” of Haitian migrants for everything from unemployment to unsanitary conditions in and around the bateyes. Unwarranted attacks on persons, gender violence and other forms of human degradation are some of the results.
Legal Immigrants—Yet Denied Services
Children born to foreign parents living permanently in the Dominican Republic usually are accorded Dominican citizenship. But not Haitian children.
This exclusion, normally applicable only to diplomats or tourists, is cynically extended to undocumented Haitians despite the fact that many parents may have been in the country for years. The irony is the parents’ work skills and labor are needed to keep the economy afloat.
For a child to be granted citizenship, both parents must normally prove their own citizenship by showing identity cards. Ethnic Haitian children born in the Dominican Republic are routinely denied Dominican birth certificates in hospitals, perpetuating this cycle.
Ferguson says that governments of sending states do not condemn the conditions their nationals are forced to tolerate, because often the remittances sent home by migrant workers prop up a weak economy.
A Sign of Hope for Haitian Nationals?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has extended the temporary protected status for Haitians. The action, announced May 18, 2011, allows 48,000 Haitians to remain in the United States until 2013. Thousands of others will now be eligible to apply for protected status.