ELIAS PIÑA, Dominican Republic – Business is booming for human smugglers on Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic as Haitians flee the social and economic crisis at home.
But the influx of thousands of Haitians, many of them children, is stoking xenophobia in DR, which has begun work on a border wall to keep migrants out.
At the Belladère-Elias Piña border gate – one of four official crossings between the two countries – there’s already a couple of miles of 14-foot high cinder block wall covered with razor wire.
Georges (who asked VICE World News not to use his real name) has been working as a boucon – a people smuggler – for five years. He earns about $18 per person he smuggles across the border to the Dominican Republic. His costs include greasing the necessary palms to get people across.
“There are more people crossing the border now. Life is difficult in Haiti,” says Georges.
“If we’re caught by the [Dominican] border guards, we give them 200-500 pesos [$4-9].”
VICE World News obtained secret camera footage of Dominican border guards taking bribes from boucons, and of people crossing into the DR illegally with children.
The Dominican border force did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Close to half a million Haitians are living undocumented in the Dominican Republic, according to the Organization for International Migration (OIM). DR has a population of 11 million.
Political unrest, rising violence and kidnappings have exacerbated an already dire economic situation in Haiti. In response, many are fleeing to their richer, safer, neighbour to the east. And Georges says the demographics are changing. “There are more illegal Haitian kids in DR now than adults.
It's estimated that 70 percent of the children living on the streets of the DR's second city, Santiago de Los Caballeros, are Haitian. Credit: Michael Anthony Adams
“A lot of kids are dreaming about going there! It’s the government's fault,” he says.
Most of those who cross the border end up in the capital Santo Domingo or DR’s second city, Santiago De Los Caballeros.
Jean, who asked VICE World News not to use his real name because he was undocumented, was 15 years old when he crossed from Haiti to the Dominican Republic on his own six months ago.
“I used to see Haitians coming from the DR. They were well dressed. I wanted that. I came here with that dream,” he says. “The reality is completely different.”
As many as 70 percent of the kids living on the streets of Santiago are Haitian, according to child welfare organizations. Boys shine shoes, clean cars, or sell snacks and iPhone covers around the imposing Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration downtown.
But it’s not an easy way to make a living, and the boys are often at the mercy of exploitative employers.
“Sometimes, after work, we ask for our wage, but the boss refuses to pay up, and beats us,” says Jean.
"Jean" (not his real name) crossed into the Dominican Republic by himself at 15 years of age. He doesn't plan to go back to Haiti, even though life on the streets of Santiago is hard. Credit: Ramon Iriarte
Christine, aged 17, came to the Dominican Republic undocumented eight months ago, with four friends. “We were hungry, without proper clothes, so my friends had sex for money and they told me to do the same.”
She says she only did that three times. Now, she prefers to sleep on the street than earn money that way, but she’s terrified. “When you sleep on the streets, gangsters can stab you. If I die on the street, dogs will eat my body.”
The OIM has identified over 96 unofficial border crossing points, which Haitians use to illegally enter the DR.
In February, President Luis Abinader promised the Dominican People a border wall – one with “a double perimeter fence” as well as “movement sensors, facial recognition cameras, radar and infrared systems.” Work has already begun on the 234-mile project, and Abinader promises it will be complete within two years. The cost of the project hasn’t been made public.
Institutionalized discrimination against Haitians is nothing new in DR, going back to the rule of fascist dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). But it’s also been a feature of modern Dominican politics, including a widely-criticised policy of denying citizenship and identity documents to Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Many of the Haitian boys who cross into the DR work shining shoes. Credit: Ramon Iriarte
Under Abinader, expulsions of Haitian illegal migrants are media events, with Dominican press invited to photograph and film people being deported back to Haiti. When VICE World News was at the border crossing at Elias Piña, two yellow school buses pulled up with 109 Haitian migrants who were promptly expelled. Dominican border officials said they were rounded up in a 30-mile radius.
But adults and children alike are undeterred by these efforts. Guards say that many cross back into the DR as soon as they’ve been deported.
“The authorities do nothing [for Haitians]. It's not a priority for these people,” says Rigard Orbé of the Support Group for the Repatriated and Refugees (GARR in French), an organization that looks after Haitian deportees.
“It’s a very lucrative business,” Orbé says. “The guards on the Dominican side are profiting from it. The Haitian police don't do anything either, their priorities are elsewhere.”
And despite estimates that tens of thousands of Haitian children are working in precarious situations in DR, they keep coming.