Walking the line: High tension on the border

Fiordeliza Matos tells us of a complex identity on a divided island.

Fiordeliza Matos is a joy to meet. She has a way of talking that oozes expression her arms wave her body sways her eyes urge us to hear her story. She’s taken a few minutes out from her job at a baker’s shop to tell us about her life in the Dominican Republic – her church, the music she likes, and how, in pretty much every way, she considers herself Dominican.

But that’s not a view shared by the Dominican government. Even though Fiordeliza has a Dominican father, her mother was Haitian – and Fiordeliza has never obtained formal identity documents. As such, she is now under the threat of being deported to a country she has never been to – despite it lying just a few kilometres away from her home town, Jimani, in the south west Dominican Republic.

The UNHCR has provided the latest in a stream of international criticism against a September Dominican Constitutional Court ruling that not only cracks down hard on undocumented immigrants – but retroactively applies to anyone born in the country since 1929 to such migrants. Support groups say this leaves up to 200,000 people in the DR facing deportation. Most of these are from the country’s desperately poor neighbour, Haiti.

Fiordeliza acknowledges her Haitian roots, but doesn’t identify with them. Her mother died some time ago and she speaks only a few words of Creole.

“My life, my people, my language, all of it is here. Living over there would be like a different world,” she says, breaking into one of her many large smiles. “It doesn’t embarrass me [being part-Haitian]. It’d be nice to visit, walk around. But to live there? Oh, no!”

In the past couple of weeks, more than 400 Haitian migrants have passed through Jimani and other border towns on their way to being repatriated. Dominican authorities insist the vast majority voluntarily turned themselves in, to escape rumours of mob violence against Haitians after two Haitian men allegedly killed an elderly Dominican couple near the town of Neiba about an hour’s drive east.

In the remote village where the retaliatory attacks reportedly happened, people had no problems talking about their dislike of Haitians. Several residents told us how, after news of the couple’s death spread, a local mob had murdered two Haitian men in return. They talked as if it was an ordinary event.

“They say we’re racists, but who wouldn’t do the same after what they did to that couple?” one woman told us. But it was also clear that hearsay had fuelled the fear and hatred, with differing stories of the numbers of reprisal attacks against Haitians and the extent of the elderly couple’s injuries.

According to several Dominican officials we spoke to, rumour is also behind the criticism by migrant rights groups, who have accused Dominican authorities of rounding up Haitians and forcibly deporting them.

“It’s all a lie, meant to stir up hatred between the two countries,” said Jose Hipolito Martinez Perez, an immigration superviser at the border just outside Jimani. “Some NGOs are giving a bad impression and that is creating confusion.”

Like many boundaries between unequal neighbours, there’s a Wild West feel to the area outside Martinez-Perez’s well-guarded cabin office. Heavy trucks rumble dangerously close as street sellers hawk food, clothes and cheap electrical items traders lug wheelbarrows of goods back and forth through the gates beggars and hustlers compete for the attention of anyone who looks vaguely well off and disorientated by the chaos.

“The Haitians that normally work the land asked the police in Neiba to protect them,” said Martinez-Perez. “The colonel there arranged very comfortable transportation for them. When they arrived at the border here, they decided to go back to their own country to avoid any agression.”

Two Haitians who have recently returned to their country are Mario Edrice and Jean Elice. They’re cousins who had been living in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, for ten and six years respectively. We caught up with them in the Haitian town of Lascahobas. Both speak fluent Spanish and tell us a very different version of their repatriation.

“Immigration officers stopped me in the street,” says Mario, a construction worker. “They were calling me ‘Haitian devil’ and telling me to go back to my own country, things like that. Then they put a gun to my head, arrested me and threw me in a truck that brought me to the border.” He grows visibly more bitter as he recalls how authorities ignored his pleas to go back to Santo Domingo – to at least let his wife and two young children know what happened.

Jean tells a similar story of being stopped in the street, except he was with his wife and child. A former computer studies student in Santo Domingo, Jean had a valid visa for most of his time in the DR. It ran out in August.

“I tried to show them my Dominican phone since only those with residency can get one. But they took it off me and smashed it.”

He and his wife spent three days in separate prisons until they were deported, he said. There were many other Haitians in jail, awaiting the same fate, he added.

“They left us at the border with nothing but the clothes we were stood in. We had to walk all the way back here,” he told me. Lascahonas is several hours drive from the border.
Although back in the town where they were born, both Mario and Jean say they have no prospects for work there. An unemployment rate of around 40 per cent forces thousands of Haitians to try their luck elsewhere. For many, that means the Dominican Republic, even if the trade off is abuse.

“There, they treat you like an animal,” Mario says. He pulls up his sleeve and shows us the machete scar on his bicep from a time when he’d been robbed. He says in the past some foremen had tipped off thieves on payday that “the Haitian” has money. Verbal and racist abuse is reportedly common.

“We go there because in Haiti there is nothing, no jobs, nothing,” he says. “That’s why we’re in the Dominican Republic. Not because we like the life there.”

If what happened to Mario and Jean represents the unofficial implementation of the court ruling, last week the Dominican Republic announced its public approach to the campaign. Under it, those potentially affected by the decision, such as Fiordeliza Matos, have 18 months to apply for citizenship. But rights groups have criticised the plan, saying that it is unclear what the criteria was for a successful application.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable,” says Fiordeliza. “It’s difficult to belong to a country without documents or identification. It’s very embarrassing.” She breaks into another of her broad smiles.

“I don’t know anyone in Haiti. It would be weird to live there. Although it’s a part of me, my life, my upbringing has all been here.”