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Accompanying Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic

By the time the meeting begins, there are about 15 adults gathered with a handful of children shyly glued to their caretakers’ sides. Some speak Spanish, but many don’t, so Salomon translates everything that Jerpin says into Creole. (Mary Small — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

(Jimaní, Dominican Republic) February 19, 2013 — Along with Jerpin, the Project Coordinator of the Jimaní office, and Salomon, the pastor of a local church, I attended a meeting last week of one of nine Haitian migrant groups accompanied by Jesuit Migration Service here in the Dominican Republic. 

When we arrive, there are only three adults present—at least two of whom seem to live in the adjacent house. As always seems to happen for community meetings here, wobbly white plastic chairs appear out of nowhere. Someone gestures at a shelter made of an old UNICEF tarp and we all sit down beneath it. "The people are coming," we're told, and over the next twenty minutes or so, they do. 

By the time the meeting begins, there are about 15 adults gathered with a handful of children shyly glued to their caretakers’ sides. Some speak Spanish, but many don’t, so Salomon translates everything that Jerpin says into Kreyol (Creole). There might be a few comments that get dropped along the way, but overall, the conversation runs smoothly, and I forget that the meeting is sliding between two languages. 

It doesn't take long for some of the challenges this group faces to become apparent. In the beginning the women are incredibly quiet and it takes significant effort from Jerpin to draw them out into equal participation in the conversation. Based on an exchange about the proper way to fill out a form to apply for a birth certificate, it becomes clear that many of them are either completely or functionally illiterate.

Most have their birth certificates; about two thirds have their passports; but none have visas permitting them to work in the Dominican Republic. Part of the work of the Jimaní office is actually to support them in procuring these documents.

After spending time in Santo Domingo talking to people who are desperate to access their documentation, I’m surprised when Jerpin has to explain—in painstaking detail—what each of these documents are, and why they are worth procuring. I realize that educating these migrants about how a basic governance structure functions is part of the work of Jesuit Migration Service (SJM), and it reinforces the extreme vulnerability of these migrants to scammers and hustlers.

Eventually, the conversation moves on to human rights violations. Jerpin starts off this portion of the conversation by asking what they think the biggest challenge they face is. One woman says "there isn't any work." Another replies, "there is some work, but only domestic work." Another tags on "yeah, only domestic work, and then they don’t even pay you in the end."

The group agrees that an overarching challenge is the ability for people to exploit Haitian migrants with impunity. Jerpin and Salamon reply that the only way to change this is for migrants to unify and denounce their abusers. Jerpin asks if they would be willing to come to SJM office next time they suffer an abuse so that SJM can accompany them to the authorities.

Some nod affirmatively, but others hesitate. One young man says what the others are thinking: what happens if an undocumented person goes to the police? Jerpin answers: Even without documents, the police have to receive you. The young man counters: But if they don’t and they put me in jail? Jerpin again replies: Then we would denounce them, and they know that.

There is a pause. And then the young man says quietly: "But you can't promise anything, which is why we’re afraid." 

For human rights defenders all over the world, denunciation always entails some risk. But for these Haitian migrants, those risks loom particularly large. And yet, night after night all over this province, groups of Haitian migrants just like this one meet with the staff of Jesuit Migration Service and talk with hope about a different reality.  

By Mary Small, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy, currently in the Dominican Republic. Previous stories, "Facing the Reality of Statelessness" can be read here and "Seeking solutions to statelessness" can be read here.

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