The Dominican Republic, through the voice of its current president, Luis Abinader, has announced the construction of a wall to permanently separate the 380 km border with Haiti in order to combat and put an end to illegal immigration, drug trafficking and rampant corruption among the police forces at the border. The decision to build this wall is actually based on much more complex dynamics and a hostile relationship between two countries that are so close and yet so far apart.
During his annual State of the Nation address on February 27, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader announced the construction of a 380 km fence along the border separating the Dominican state from Haiti.
“Within two years we want to put an end to the serious problems of illegal immigration, drug trafficking and transit of stolen vehicles that we have been suffering for years, and achieve the protection of our territorial integrity that we have been seeking since our independence.” The idea of building a wall to divide the two states is not a new one either. The Dominican government has been considering this idea for years, and there are already walls at the most easily crossed points of the border. The Dominican president also announced that the wall will be equipped with detection sensors and facial recognition systems.
The decision to go forward with a ‘continued and decisive’ divide now might be owing to the increased political instability that Haiti has been experiencing over the past two years.
A mob of Haitians upset by a shortage of water and basic products and services began marching against President Mose in February 2019, igniting a civil war scenario that has not only not halted but has become worse since then. The last act of this escalation occured on 7 July 2021 when President Mose was assassinated in his private residence in the Capitol city, Port-au-Prince. Few moths before Mose declared that he deliberately decided to prolong its time in office alleging that his mandated had really begun 2 years later due to election fraud investigations of the 2015 elections. In short, the situation is tense: the two countries’ historically hostile relations, as well as the Dominican Republic’s legitimate concern about a Haitian political situation that will almost certainly lead to an increase in migrants and refugees, all weigh in on the decision to forever divide the fates of these two states.
Yet, the idea of building a barrier, another barrier, to drive away those who have had a more cruel fate can be found in the xenophobic and racist nature that sees Haiti and Haitians as usurping people that must be isolated. This sentiment, which can be defined as “Haitianidad” (defining the Haitians as the “others”), is what most likely led the Dominican President to create this wall. Thus this physical barrier can be seen as the last piece of an anti-Haitian and racist sentiment that is grounded in a historical and cultural context that has been a feature of the entire history of the island of Hispaniola since its division between the Spanish colonial empire (in the Dominican part) and the French colonial empire (in the Hatian part) in 1697. In fact, the Spanish side has historically been inhabited by Hispanics or ‘whites’, while the other half of the island is populated by Haitians, most of whom are descendants of the ‘African slaves’ of the French colonial period.
Haitians began their diaspora to the Dominican part of the island in the early 1900s in search of better living conditions. In fact, the Dominican Republic is considered the fastest-growing state among developing economies, on the other hand Haiti is the poorest state in the Western hemisphere.
Throughout history, cultural heritage, in combination with evident cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, has sadly resulted in racist acts. The ‘Parsley Massacre’, ordered by then-Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1937, resulted in the killing of about 20,000 Haitians in a matter of days.
To date, despite the fact that the techniques have thankfully diminished, the Dominican Republic’s antagonism and, more broadly, the ties between the two nations do not appear to have improved significantly. Despite this, an apartheid environment exists in Haitian society in the Dominican Republic, where thousands of people dwell. The latest annual report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights includes the Dominican Republic in a “black list” of countries under special observation with regard to human rights, due to “the persistence of structural problems related to discrimination against people born in Dominican territory with Haitian ancestry, or perceived as such”.
Until 2010, the Constitution provided for ius soli with the sole exclusion of children of diplomats and people ‘in transit’, a concept often arbitrarily interpreted by officials of the Junta Central Electoral – the governmental body in charge of elections and the issuance of registry documents – to question the right to nationality of people of Haitian descent. In the absence of a clear legal criterion, restrictions to the right of ius soli were added in the constitutional amendment of 26 January 2010, including the fact that the parents of the newborn child had to be legally resident in Dominican territory.
The picture was further blurred by Constitutional Court judgment 168-13 of September 23, 2013, which, while denying citizenship to a 29-year-old lady, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, decided to retrospectively extend that view to all others in the same circumstances. Citizenship – and the right to it – was essentially revoked by the Constitutional Court for persons born in Dominican territory between 1929 and 2007 to foreign parents who were not formally resident. Suddenly, approximately 210,000 people, all of Haitian heritage, faced the potential of statelessness, according to a UNHCR estimate issued immediately after the judgement.
The majority of Haitian migrants – 87.3 percent of the migrant population, according to the 2012 National Immigrant Survey – saw their children denied access to education, legal employment, the right to have a phone number, a bank account, the right to vote, and everything else that makes a person a citizen in terms of rights and responsibilities.
The violation of human rights, as denounced by many associations including Amnesty International, has become normal along the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the construction of this border wall is only the latest of a long series of acts that have characterized relations between these two states over the years.
The migration issue for the Dominican Republic is moving towards a drastic choice that is often frowned upon when implemented by states considered democratic. Nowadays, the stances of those political leaders such as Trump, Orban and Morawiecki who call for walls to delimit their borders and not allow any migratory flow are often criticized.
And so the questions arise: what will be the result of the construction of this wall? will it bring further feelings of “Haitianidad”? will the wall take Dominican democracy a further step backward in terms of respect for civil and political freedoms and human rights?
The Dominican migratory crisis should be studied by trying to retrace the history between the two states which, although so close, have proven to be completely different. The construction of this wall on the border should be understood as the last piece of a process of division that began during the colonial era. The feeling of rejection for the different neighbor has made possible the birth of the feeling of “Haitianidad”, together with the shortcomings of the Haitian government. Haiti today is a poor state, with few possibilities for development and a very unstable political and social society, all these factors create concern and distrust in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Therefore, the decision to create a wall is not the result of a populist or nationalist government, but only the most instinctive reaction of a state that feels under threat. Walls give that sense of protection to delimit what is mine from what is yours. Certainly the creation of the wall will have a negative impact on all the indicators of democratization of the country (which has never given the impression of having become a consolidated democracy, on the contrary it now presents significant limitations from the point of view of the respect for civil and political rights) just like Trump’s America or Orban’s Hungary and Morawiecki’s Poland. Only history will be able to judge the choice of building this wall, what we can say to date is that walls in history have never solved any problem, but rather have created others, worsening the situations.
Photo from Dominican Today, Dominican Republic-Haiti border fence continues.