Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti – Eugene Toussaint and his wife, Isoline, have seen thousands arrive with their families from the Dominican Republic in the past six months. “They started to arrive on June 17,” says the elderly pastor, “and they didn’t stop.”
Toussaint built his shack on this dry patch of land almost 15 years ago. He left the Dominican Republic after living there for a decade when the land he was tending was taken from him. He told Al Jazeera, “I am
the one who greeted these migrants here. God sent me first.”
Nearly 2,600 people now live in four makeshift camps just inside Haiti, a few kilometres from the border town of Anse-a-Pitres in the southeastern part of the country.
The first arrivals came to these camps the week before a deadline passed in the Dominican Republic for foreign workers and others without a formal status or papers, including some born in the country but never registered, to enrol in government regularisation programmes.
Those programmes, which closed earlier this year, were a response to a ruling by the Dominican constitutional court in 2013, which effectively stripped people of citizenship going all the way back to 1929 if they were born to Haitian migrant parents.
Leaving Dominican Republic out of fear
Many, like Geralda Eloy and her family, fled the Dominican Republic out of fear.
They say the discrimination towards those who look Haitian had become unbearable. They’d heard stories that people of Haitian descent were being rounded up and deported, and in some cases subjected to violent attacks.
All of Eloy’s children were born in the Dominican Republic but none of their births was ever registered and they have no identification documents to prove their place of birth.
Ironically, weeks after she left, Eloy and her husband, who had submitted their application to the government registration programme for foreign workers, learned that they had been granted permission to stay. But, by then it was too late. They had already left the country and now had no money and no idea if their children would be able to return to the Dominican Republic with them.
Eloy said that they made a huge mistake. “If I had known, I would have stayed. I would never have come. The situation here is just terrible. There are all kinds of illnesses. We have had fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, everything.”
Cholera on Haiti border
Families have built their makeshift homes from cardboard and tree branches on inhospitable, dry, rocky ground.
Many of the Haitian and international aid agencies worry about what will happen when the rainy season comes.
“The camps are already suffering a major health problem,” said Marc Pascal Desmornes, from Christian Aid.
Cholera has been killing people in the region where the camps are located. “There have been 17 deaths resulting from cholera in the last three months, 40 confirmed cases and 90 suspected cases,” he said.
So far a handful of people have died in the camps, but without proper sanitation there are fears the outbreak will only get worse.
Toussaint told Al Jazeera there was no apparent plan for the people in the camp or their welfare as conditions deteriorated with the passing months. “We have lost people because of cholera and we have lost people through hunger. They were starving and then the cholera came. The two things are acting together and killing people.”
While a few families moved to the camps because of a severe drought elsewhere in Haiti, the vast majority came from the Dominican Republic. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is one of the few bodies monitoring how many people have been deported or have left the Dominican Republic for Haiti.
IOM representatives told Al Jazeera that by December 4, more than 28,713 people had spontaneously returned to Haiti from the Dominican Republic. An additional 11,024 had been officially deported, which means the deportations were physically witnessed or registered at the border.
However, the IOM has also discovered that 9,480 more people reported they were deported as well. Of the total 49,217 from these different groups, – 17 percent or 8,357 people say they were actually born in the Dominican Republic.
Josue Fiallo, a spokesman for the Dominican government, told Al Jazeera that according to government figures no individuals born in the Dominican Republic were deported.
“If a person decided to voluntarily leave the Dominican Republic, and they now claim that they were born in the Dominican Republic, they have to go to our offices,” Fiallo said.
Some facts on the ground, however, contradict the government claims. Humanitarian organisations working with the refugees told Al Jazeera of at least two cases in which individuals were wrongfully deported and managed to return to the Dominican Republic only with help from the United Nations. There is no estimate yet of how many other others there are like them.
But, Fiallo responded that he is “not aware of these cases”.
“When we are talking about thousands of people being involved, one or two cases fall through the cracks,” he said. “It’s possible, we acknowledge, and we admit that this could happen. It happens anywhere in the world.”
The fact that those individuals managed to return to the Dominican Republic indicates that “the mechanisms we set in place are working,” he added.
Few people in the camps, however, were confident they would be able to return if they were to apply through the proper channels.
Deteriorating conditions at Haiti camps
A plan to register and relocate the people to other locations in Haiti has been drawn up by a number of international bodies and aid agencies, but so far the Haitian government has not given its approval.
Haitian officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment. Six months ago, as the deadline loomed for people to register in the Dominican Republic, the Haitian government had promised to build centres to receive those arriving from the Dominican Republic “with dignity”. The centres were never built.
For those who visit the camps regularly like Lissaint Antoine , director of the Jesuit Service for Migrants in Haiti, the country’s politicians are to blame for the deteriorating situation in the camps near Anse-a-Pitres and elsewhere.
“I would tell them to face up to their responsibilities,” Antoine told Al Jazeera.
“The prime minister has come here, the interior minister, the president’s wife too, so many officials have come and the situation in the camps remains unchanged. These people continue to live in misery, to suffer a life without dignity. The problem isn’t money. It’s the lack of political will to do something.”
Antoine said that while it was true that Haiti’s politicians were caught up in presidential and legislative elections, which have led to demonstrations and violence in the country, those living in the camp simply aren’t a priority.
“These people are not an important issue for the elite, the state, or any Haitian government because they are rural people, people who are socially excluded.”
Haiti camps no longer temporary
While the wait continues for someone to come up with a solution, the camps, which were once temporary, are beginning to look more permanent.
While there is still just one source of water and many only eat a few days a week when supplies are delivered by aid agencies, a shop has sprung up in one camp selling provisions for a few dollars to those who can afford them.
Vendors now come daily to sell clothes and food and some men have begun illegally entering the Dominican Republic to work. All they have to do is walk a few minutes from the camp, cross a shallow river and they are back in the Dominican Republic.
They leave sometimes for days at a time to work the fields for Dominican businessmen who need cheap labour. Over the border, they can earn around three dollars a day, more than they can make in Haiti and enough to ensure their families don’t starve in the camps.
The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic remains so porous, Antoine told Al Jazeera that, in the absence of any improvement in their lives in Haiti, he believes many will eventually take the risk and go back despite all their concerns over discrimination or the possibility they will be expelled.
“In the end, little by little, they’ll return to the Dominican Republic. I think they’re waiting for things to calm down over there, for the Dominican elections to take place and then they’ll slowly cross back,” Antoine explained.
“It’s not far. They just have to cross the river and walk and they’re home. Many of them have spent their whole lives there so what else are they going to do?”