There are thought to be 10 million stateless people around the world. Here are some of their stories.
Santa Lucia, Dominican Republic – Sitting outside her family’s shack in Santa Lucia, El Seibo province, in the Dominican Republic, 27-year-old Yolanda Alcino is worried. “My family is divided, four of my siblings were never registered here and they have no documentation at all,” she says.
It had been a bittersweet moment for her when she finally received her identity card after a seven-year battle – confirmation that Alcino could stay in the land of her birth. Yet it was no consolation for those of her family whose futures remain uncertain.
A ruling in 2013 by the Dominican constitutional court essentially stripped thousands of people who were born to Haitian migrant parents of their citizenship. The ruling led to a review of the country’s civil registry and birth records going all the way back to 1929.
According to the most recent estimates acquired by Al Jazeera from government officials, the ruling has left about 138,000 people in limbo because they were born to foreign parents or, as in many cases, their parents never registered for or were denied an official birth certificate.
Nearly all of the people affected by the ruling are of Haitian descent, the children of undocumented workers who have been coming to the Dominican Republic to work for generations. Some came legally, some illegally, to harvest sugarcane or work in construction – a vital source of cheap labour for a thriving Dominican economy.
According to government figures, five percent of the population – more than half a million people – are not formally registered in the national registry. After the ruling and in response to an international outcry, Danilo Medina, the Dominican president, issued an executive order in 2013 that led to the setting up of a registration programme whereby those born in the country but unregistered, as well as foreign workers, could apply for a formal status.
Many people found the process extremely difficult. Some in remote areas, in particular those who are poor or uneducated, didn’t realise that they had to apply; others found it impossible to recover their papers, were unable to navigate a maze of legal bureaucracy, or simply couldn’t afford to have some documents notarised. Many of those who tried to enrol still have no idea if they succeeded.
Fewer than 9,000 people who found themselves in a similar position to Alcino’s family, actually tried to register. The grace period for the registration closed in February, again raising concerns of mass expulsion.
In June, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, appealed to the Dominican government not to deport people born in the country who do not have a formal status. The organisation expressed concerned that they would be deported to Haiti, a country which would not recognise them as citizens either.
Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman, said that “t his would have serious repercussions for all who are affected, and be a serious setback to efforts worldwide to end the problem of statelessness”.
In these communities, where many still work in the sugar cane fields, a large number of families never applied for the registration programme because they mistrust the authorities. Many of those who did, have heard nothing.
In the six months since the final deadline for registration passed, the fears of the community have grown. Anyone who looks Haitian is at risk now Alcino said. “We are afraid. If you don’t have a document of any kind you can be immediately deported,” she said.
“If you try to say something or defend yourself, you can get beaten up. I’ve seen cases of people who have Dominican identity cards who have ended up in hospital.” Alcino said that fear paralyses people and that she only leaves her house in a case of emergency.
Discrimination towards those of Haitian descent is the worst she has known in her lifetime, Alcino said. “They’ll say to us we’re Haitian simply because of the colour of our skin. Even if you have your Dominican identity card, they’ll accuse you of stealing it or buying it.”
Epifania St Chals, an activist working with those at risk, spent months before the government deadline helping families to enrol. She told Al Jazeera that the people are justified in their fears, “the situation has got much worse”.
“We are at risk of having more and more children who are born stateless with neither the Dominican Republic, nor Haiti willing to recognise them,” St Chals warned.
People feel intimidated into leaving the country and know that immigration officials, dressed in casual clothing rather than uniforms, are targeting individuals.
“The government says it gave them a chance to register, but it was little more than a show,” St Chals says. She is convinced that many Dominican politicians simply believe there are too many Haitians in the country and want them to leave or be forced out.
“The issue of Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic comes down to politics. It always has. Now, the government says no one is stateless but there are so many Dominicans who have no papers and I just don’t see this being resolved in their favour.”
Josue Fiallo, a government spokesman instrumental in the implementation of the registration programme, told Al Jazeera that thanks to the government nearly 300,000 undocumented foreign workers now have a formal status in the country.
“We cannot accept the argument that people were deprived of their citizenship,” he said in response to known concerns raised by the UNHCR , and a number of international human rights groups regarding people who are left essentially stateless by the new legislation.
“We do accept that the constitutional court ruling created unease and generated fears among international organisations and human rights groups,” he said, “but we are confident that, by the law that we passed in 2014, Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización 169-14 [the law which led to the implementation of the registration and regularisation programme], we were able to dissipate those fears.”
“I think that the magnitude of the problem is not as it has been portrayed,” said Fiallo. “We are trying to put in place mechanisms to try and find these people and bring them into one of the categories that we have created.”
Fiallo said the government was being unfairly judged and that the information received by NGO’s is most likely “coming from sources that have interests here or are responding to anther kind of agenda that we just don’t know about”.
Robin Guittard, from Amnesty International, however, told Al Jazeera that the concerns over the treatment of the Dominican population of Haitian descent is the result of the scale of the “human rights crisis provoked by the country’s constitutional court”, whose ruling has thrown people’s lives into chaos, fear and despair.
“Amnesty acknowledges the efforts of the current government in seeking a solution to this drama but our research also found those efforts fall short of resolving the entire problem,” said Guittard. “We encourage the Dominican authorities to continue working to provide a sustainable and definitive solution to end this crisis.”
Throughout history, relations between the island neighbours, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, have long been marked by periods of unrest and violence. The worst came in October 1937, during the great depression, when foreigners became a scapegoat for economic hardship and the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the systematic killing of thousands of Haitians.
The tragedy is known as the Parsley Massacre because soldiers killed those who could not correctly pronounce the Spanish word for parsley – perejil – taking this as an indication that the person must be of Haitian Creole background. Historians estimate that anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000 civilians were killed over five days.
In the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, many who support the current government’s actions complain that there are just too many undocumented people and that the country is being “invaded” .
“We are not racists,” one Dominican man, Alberto Torres told Al Jazeera. “We have spent hundreds of years living alongside Haitians but when we realised we were overwhelmed by the sheer number, we had to make new laws.”
His wife Maria added: “Take a walk through the city or through the whole country, we are full, full of documented and undocumented Haitians.”
According to figures provided to Al Jazeera by the Dominican government following the registration deadline six months ago, by early December 60,000 people had left the country of their own accord and 12,500 had been deported.
Alcino said the members of her family who have no identity documents are living a shadow of a life. “Without papers, you can’t study, you can’t find a job except something very tough like working in the sugarcane fields. You can’t get medical insurance or get a bank account.”
Nor can they vote or register marriages. Alcino’s brother Franklin cannot register his newborn son, she said. The child will, in turn, be left to lead a life of statelessness.
Franklin and another sister, Jenny, were so desperate to find a way to stay in the Dominican Republic, the only country they have ever known, that they took the extreme step of applying to stay through a separate government programme for foreign workers. A year later, they are still awaiting a response.
Franklin told Al Jazeera that he has no papers to prove that he is either Dominican or Haitian. “I thought about it long and hard and in the end I felt I had no choice but to apply to stay as a foreigner,” he said.
“I was born here in the Dominican Republic, I’m Dominican. I don’t know anything about Haiti, but I did this for my wife and child.”
Many others made the same decision in an effort to avoid deportation. Their only connection to Haiti are their parents or grandparents.