Throughout modern history, border walls have provided tremendous fodder and cover for authoritarian leaders around the world.
Their existence has only increased in recent years, with USA Today reporting 77 border walls in 2018, compared to just 15 worldwide in 1989 at the time the Berlin Wall was torn down.
In this case, there is no strength in numbers. Whether it’s Hungary’s new high-tech fence along the Serbian border or Northern Ireland’s ironically named Peace Wall, these structures have only created more problems, increasing division, discrimination and disillusionment.
As advocates working to defend and protect the rights of migrants and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic, we offer the United States as the most recent cautionary tale as the Dominican Republic plans to construct a 234-mile border fence to keep out Haitian migrants.
Dominican President Luis Abinader described the move as an attempt to “put an end to the serious problems of illegal immigration, drug trafficking and the movement of stolen vehicles.”
Yet, just like Donald Trump’s campaign promise that the U.S.-Mexico border wall would “put an end to illegal immigration and stop the drugs from pouring into our country,” there is a glossy sheen meant to distract attention from the true purpose of this project. In both cases, political leaders have used overt nationalism as a smoke-and-mirrors tactic to cloak discriminatory practices on the basis of race, economic status and national origin.
Abinader paints the problem as solely about Haitian migrants, but it affects Dominicans of foreign ancestry, too.
Tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic have rapidly escalated in the past year because of Haiti’s deteriorating political stability and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the economic and social situation of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the country. They are more likely to work in the informal sector, or gray economy, and may be denied access to social programs and health services restricted to Dominican citizens.
The root of the problem, however, has been nearly a century in the making, including the Dominican Republic’s continuous and targeted policy and practice of denying citizenship and identity documents to Dominicans of Haitian descent, who have a constitutional right to citizenship. Government officials mistakenly claim a resolution of these issues. On the contrary, a century of Haitian labor migration to the Dominican Republic, with economic benefits for the host country, are overlooked, in a “needed but unwanted” syndrome.
For more than a decade, our organizations have worked with Dominican human-rights activists, including 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate Sonia Pierre, to fight against denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent and discriminatory policies against Haitian migrants. These policies not only clearly violate international law, but erect day-to-day obstacles for Dominicans of Haitian descent, including their ability to find stable employment, register their children, access social services, get health insurance and attend university, all of which condemns them, and often their children, to a life of poverty and social exclusion.
The border fence seeks to transform the narrative of the Dominican government’s racist, xenophobic policies against its own citizens and neighbors into one of self-defense.
The international community cannot stand on the sidelines. Instead of watching a proliferation of fences, we must dismantle the discriminatory systems on which they are built, advocating for legal means for migration.
Enacting policies that respect the rights of migrants and their families and provide generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent with their Dominican identity documents will go a long way in alleviating issues of inequity and injustice. The country must aim to address the gaps in its obligations, not cover them up behind walls.
Bridget Wooding is the director of the Observatory Caribbean Migrants. Kacey Mordecai is an international advocacy and litigation attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.