Addressing the Next Displacement Crisis in the Making in the Americas
The next major displacement of people in the Americas is in the making, and it is going unnoticed. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have left their country since a devastating 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 220,000 people and left another 1.5 million homeless. This steady stream of emigrants may be punctuated by new migration spikes given the collapse of basic governmental functions, persistent political and economic instability, and worsening gang violence underway since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021. As conditions deteriorate, not only are new Haitian flows expected, but prospects of migrants returning to Haiti from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States will diminish. The question is how will already overwhelmed migration systems in the Americas respond?
When examining the treatment of Haitian migrants in the Americas, it is difficult not to compare it with the experience of other migrants, in particular Venezuelans, whose exodus from Venezuela represents the largest displacement in the region in contemporary history, with 7.7 million departures since 2015. Like Haitians, Venezuelans are fleeing for a number of reasons: political persecution, joblessness, crime, hunger, and, as Haitians would say, yap chache lavi (looking for a better life). Venezuelans and Haitians since 2022 have been among the top three nationalities crossing the dangerous jungle of the Darien Gap that straddles the Colombian-Panamanian border, headed northward.
The crises in Haiti and in Venezuela are the result of a complex set of political and socioeconomic circumstances, with no clear resolution in sight. Yet even if they have experienced integration challenges in some countries, Venezuelan migrants have enjoyed a far warmer welcome than Haitians throughout the Americas, thanks to a practical, innovative, and somewhat coordinated regional strategy.
By contrast, Haitian migrants’ humanitarian protection needs are not being recognized or respected by a range of host countries, perhaps nowhere more so than the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Ongoing deportations of Haitian migrants are contributing to further destabilizing Haiti. Moreover, ambivalent policy responses by a number of governments have opened the door to discriminatory policies and treatment. A focused and proactive agenda for displaced Haitians has become critical to relieve the pressure on Hispaniola and neighboring countries, while ensuring a more equitable treatment of migrants regionally.
Pushbacks from Caribbean Nations
In November 2022, the severity of the humanitarian and security crises in Haiti prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to urge states to stop deporting Haitians, and offer them alternative avenues when refugee status is not an option. But in their own backyard, Haitian migrants have faced serious blockage and outright pushback.
The Dominican Republic has engaged in large-scale deportations of Haitians, carrying out more than 120,000 removals between November 2022 and August 2023 (see Figure 1). The U.S. State Department noted incidents of arbitrary arrests, abuses, and degrading treatment of Haitian migrants detained by Dominican authorities. Vulnerable populations are being deported, including pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly; nearly 6,500 children have also been removed since November 2022, according to IOM, of which a growing number are unaccompanied.
Venezuelan migrants, who also face regularization issues in the Dominican Republic (their top destination in the Caribbean), have largely been spared by immigration raids since migration officials use racial profiling against Black or darker-skinned individuals to identify those in irregular status.
Figure 1. Monthly Returns to Haiti by Selected Countries, November 2022 – August 2023
Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Matrix, “Returnees from Abroad,” accessed October 1, 2023, available online.
Overall, more than 128,000 removals of Haitians have been carried out by five countries since UNHCR urged states to stop deporting Haitians. Surprisingly, Turks and Caicos, an island of 45,000 people, ranked second in the number of deportations to Haiti. This British Overseas Territory had become a top destination for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, and its small size likely makes it easier to identify foreigners, particularly Haitians. Though less frequent, repatriations from The Bahamas, United States, and Cuba have also occurred since November 2022. Repatriations to Haiti can have unintended consequences, by further destabilizing an already vulnerable country and making future displacement more likely.
Full Free Movement, Except for Haitians
Haiti is part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a 15-Member State intergovernmental organization that is seeking to implement its free mobility regime for all CARICOM nationals by March 2024—with the exception of Haitians, due to current country conditions. For a number of reasons, including Haiti’s own limited institutional capacity, Haitians’ movement within CARICOM has always been limited. In The Bahamas, the government has relaxed some of the stringent requirements that affected Haitians with documentation. At the same time, immigration authorities conduct raids to find and deport migrants in irregular status. As expert Louby Georges explained in a recent Migration Policy Institute (MPI) podcast, anti-Haitian sentiment in The Bahamas is rising.
Jamaica, another CARICOM nation, has struggled with its approach to Haitian migrants. In July, 37 Haitian migrants arriving by boat were swiftly apprehended and 29 of them were fined US $7,000 (or three days of hard labor) for illegal entry. It was not until Jamaicans expressed disapproval and international rights advocates stepped in that the migrants were able to apply for asylum. When a second boat arrived in September, the arrivals were returned to Haiti within 24 hours, without due process.
Haphazard, Impermanent Legal Pathways
Outside the Caribbean, the region has responded haphazardly to Haitian migration. For instance, Brazil and Chile, where thousands of Haitians had migrated after the 2010 earthquake, had initially opened some humanitarian pathways, giving these migrants the opportunity to find work and settle. However, economic downturns, policy changes, and rising anti-immigrant sentiment have complicated the deeper integration of Haitian migrants in South America, prompting a second migration towards the north.
Leaving South America to seek protection in another country has made it more difficult for Haitians to qualify as refugees. Mexico’s agency for asylum seekers and refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR) received 34,677 asylum applications from Haitians between January-August 2023—the highest number of all nationalities. But recognition rates for protection for Haitians were markedly lower than for other nationalities: 9 percent, as compared to Hondurans (89 percent), Salvadorans (85 percent), Venezuelans (83 percent), and Cubans (59 percent).
Still, asylum applicants can concurrently apply for a one-year renewable humanitarian visa with work permit. In December 2022, the Mexican government granted humanitarian visas to 3,000 Haitians. While there are integration challenges related to racial discrimination and sexual harassment, Haitians have found some paths to work and reside in Mexico, without the threat of deportation.
In the United States, inequities in accessing the U.S. immigration system came to light when, in fall 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers on horseback were seen chasing Haitians into the Rio Grande—images that raised uncomfortable questions around disparate treatment and racism. The Haitians’ subsequent expedited expulsions prompted criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the border. Since, a series of policy changes have been implemented that affect displaced Haitians. As of August, at least 71,000 Haitians had been granted a two-year right to remain without fear of deportation and with access to a work permit through a parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV). Though the program’s requirements for a passport and U.S.-based sponsor limit access of less well-off Haitians who may have higher protection needs, it is nonetheless a pathway, and thus far, Haitians are the largest beneficiaries. The administration also redesignated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some Haitians already resident in the United States and resumed the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. However, deportations have not completely ceased despite the State Department urging U.S. citizens not to travel to Haiti due to “kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and poor health care infrastructure,” and the further instability removals have on an already failing state.
A Champion for Haitian Migrants?
Given the persistent admission and integration problems that Haitian migrants face throughout the Americas, and the destabilizing effect of deportations for Haiti, there is a need for a stronger agenda at the hemispheric level to address the spillovers of the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, which risks reaching the level of urgency of the Venezuelan displacement crisis.
Haitians are missing the same support systems that were created by a coordinated regional response to the Venezuelan displacement. One of the leaders of this response, neighboring Colombia, is hosting 2.9 million Venezuelans and has developed a regularization plan granting most Venezuelans a ten-year protected status, with the possibility of transitioning to permanent residency. Moreover, Colombia has advocated for regional solidarity (and responsibility) towards Venezuelan migrants, and it actively participates in regional initiatives, such as the Quito Process, that keep the spotlight on Venezuelans migrants’ plight.
It is admittedly difficult to imagine that Haiti’s closest neighbor, the Dominican Republic, will emerge as Haiti’s champion given the two countries’ long-contentious history. September marked the tenth anniversary of La Sentencia—the Dominican high court ruling that stripped an estimated 210,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and pushed many into irregularity. And with the Dominican Republic unilaterally closing its land, sea, and air borders to Haiti last month over shared water resource issues, relations are at a low point.
Yet to be effective, a regional solution must prominently involve the Dominican Republic. Not only because it is the country most immediately affected by this migration, but because its current deportation strategy is further destabilizing Haiti and the socioeconomic consequences are becoming untenable for both sides of the island. Still, other voices also need to be heard, such as:
- Moderate Dominicans. As migration expert Bridget Wooding remarked in an MPI podcast, there is a vibrant civil society in the Dominican Republic that advocates for the respect of human rights, and Dominicans and Haitians get along well in border cities as long as the central governments are not involved.
- The Dominican private sector. The sugar, construction, manufacturing, and tourism industries, among others, rely significantly on Haitian workers.
- Haitian migrants. Migrant-led organizations can provide real-time testimonies about admission and integration problems, including from places where there is less information available, such as Turks and Caicos.
- The Haitian and Dominican diasporas. In the past, Dominican and Haitian diasporas in places such as New York where both are in large numbers, have condemned human-rights violations on Hispaniola and promoted a more positive vision for Dominican-Haitian relations.
CARICOM can also be an important ally for displaced Haitians. It has advocated for a Haitian-led solution to the political crisis and sent delegations to Haiti to facilitate national dialogues. Some CARICOM countries, including The Bahamas and Jamaica, have committed to sending troops as part of the recently UN-approved multinational mission to stabilize the country.
CARICOM could elevate its role by assessing its own humanitarian pathways and the flexibility of its regional instruments for Haitians with protection needs. Documenting the bottlenecks to Haitian mobility could help the region better understand the roots of irregular migration and prepare the landscape for when Haiti can fully participate in the full free mobility regime.
Crafting a Pragmatic Regional Response
One initiative that could be modeled is the Regional Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants of Venezuela (R4V), coordinated by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A similar platform focused on Haitian migrants could convene nations hosting large numbers of Haitian migrants to examine the utility of policies, such as regularization, that could prove beneficial for host countries and migrants alike.
Beyond the Dominican Republic and CARICOM, participants should include:
- Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, based on their experience managing large migration flows and developing regularization tools.
- Costa Rica and Belize, given Costa Rica’s tradition of welcoming refugees and Belize’s recent immigration reforms and regularization program. Because several of the countries where Haitians face challenges are themselves relatively small and have overwhelmed migration systems, Costa Rica and Belize could offer a more relatable perspective for Caribbean countries.
- UNHCR, IOM, and multilateral development banks, to provide technical assistance and much needed financial resources at the nexus of migration and development.
The Western Hemisphere is witnessing unprecedented human mobility, systems under pressure, and shifting attitudes towards migrants. The creation of an R4V-like platform would shed light on the adverse consequences of divergent policy responses towards Haitian migrants, attract resources to strengthen national migration systems, and ensure a sensible regional response to what is likely to be the next major displacement crisis, based on solidarity and shared responsibility.