Rights advocates demand end to Haiti deportations as unrest continues

IOM says 13,000 people were forcibly returned to Haiti by neighbouring countries last month despite a surge in violence.

Haitian citizens get off a truck to be sent back to Haiti from the Dominican Republic
Haitian citizens get off a truck as they are sent back to Haiti from the Dominican Republic on March 17 [File: Fran Afonso/Reuters]

Rights advocates are calling on countries across the Americas — notably the United States and the Dominican Republic — to stop deporting migrants and asylum seekers to Haiti amid a surge in gang violence and political instability there.

Speaking at an event on Thursday in Washington, DC, Guerline Jozef, head of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a US-based advocacy group, explained that “there is no safe space” for displaced Haitians.

“We are pushing for a … complete stop of deportation[s] to Haiti by land, by sea or by air,” she said, stressing that Haitians and other asylum seekers should have access to pathways for protection.

Haiti has faced more than a month of widespread violence, as powerful armed gangs launched attacks on police stations, prisons and other institutions in the capital of Port-au-Prince, beginning in late February.

The violence has effectively paralysed the city, and more than 360,000 Haitians have been forcibly displaced from their homes across the country, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency.

Despite the continued unrest, the IOM reported on Thursday that neighbouring countries forcibly sent 13,000 migrants back to Haiti in March. That is a 46-percent increase compared with the previous month.

“The lack of economic opportunities, coupled with a collapsing health system and shuttered schools, casts a shadow of despair, driving many to contemplate migration as their sole viable recourse,” the IOM added.

“However, for most Haitians, the prospect of regular migration remains an insurmountable hurdle, leaving irregular migration as their only semblance of hope.”

‘Forced returns must end’

People have been fleeing Haiti long before the recent surge in unrest. Security has been an issue for years, particularly after Haitian President Jovenel Moise’s 2021 assassination created a power vacuum in the Caribbean nation.

But as the violence reached new heights last month, the UN and humanitarian groups have urged countries to ensure Haitians are protected.

“Haitians’ lives, safety and freedom are threatened by a confluence of skyrocketing gang violence and human rights violations,” Elizabeth Tan, the director of international protection at the UN’s refugee agency (UNHRC), said on March 20.

“We also reiterate our call to all States to not forcibly return people to Haiti, including those who have had their asylum claims rejected.”

This week, Amnesty International and other rights groups directly called on the Dominican Republic to end its use of “de facto racist migration policies” that target Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and Black people in the country.

The Dominican Republic — which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti — has sent thousands of Haitians back to their home country over the past few years. Rights advocates slammed the forced returns as discriminatory and warned that they put people’s lives at risk.

“The Dominican government itself has informed of the deportation of more than 250,000 Haitians in 2023, including people in need of international protection,” Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“These collective expulsions are a clear violation of the Dominican Republic’s international obligations and put the lives and rights of these people at risk. Forced returns to Haiti must end.”

Temporary Protected Status

Meanwhile, advocacy groups also are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to extend protections against deportation for Haitian citizens in the US.

In a letter to Biden and other top US officials late last month, around 500 advocacy, human rights and civil society groups urged Washington to extend and redesignate a programme called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti.

The US government grants TPS to nationals of countries where temporary conditions make it too dangerous to return, such as in cases of armed conflict or environmental disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

Recipients can remain in the US without fear of deportation and work in the country. Haiti’s TPS designation is set to expire in early August.

However, in an interview with the McClatchy news agency, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas indicated the US was unlikely to extend TPS for Haitians.

“We do not have any plans at this time to redesignate Haiti for Temporary Protected Status,” Mayorkas said on Thursday.

Advocates also say the US must stop repatriating Haitian asylum seekers, including those intercepted at sea.

In one recent example, the US Coast Guard sent 65 Haitian migrants back to Haiti on March 12 after their vessel was intercepted near the Bahamas. That brought the total number of Haitians repatriated by the agency since October 31, 2023, to 131.

In a statement, a Coast Guard official said the agency would repatriate “anyone attempting irregular migration via sea routes, regardless of their nationality”.

Mayorkas echoed that perspective in Thursday’s interview with McClatchy.

“Let me be clear that, when we interdict individuals from Haiti at sea, we return them to Haiti as quickly as possible. In fact, we have done so in recent weeks, and we will continue to do so. We continue to enforce the law,” he said.

Immigration has long been a contentious political issue in the US, and it is set to stir up a great deal of public attention as the country gears up for a presidential election in November.

The vote is expected to pit Biden against his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who made anti-immigrant rhetoric and border restrictions a key plank of his administration.

Two unnamed US officials told NBC News last month that the Biden administration does not plan to change its policy of returning Haitian citizens intercepted at sea “because they do not want to trigger mass migration”.

But in their letter on March 26, the rights groups urged the Biden administration to “halt all removal flights and maritime removals” to Haiti, which they described as an “already-overburdened country”.

“These removals severely undermine the administration’s promise to build a fairer and more inclusive immigration and asylum system for all and contribute to the destabilization of Haiti,” they wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera