Dominican Republic’s PR spin is no balm for the suffering of the stateless

By Chiara Liguori, investigadora de Amnistía Internacional sobre el Caribe.

Marisol is 26 years old. She was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents. Neither she nor her brothers and sisters were registered at birth, as their parents had no formal identification. When they died, she was 10 years old and had no other choice but to become a domestic worker with a wealthy family in Santo Domingo. They promised to send her to school, but instead forced her to work 15 hours a day. They beat her up and never let her set foot in a school.

The lack of a birth certificate prevented Marisol from ever getting an identity card, essential to access jobs, health care and education. In late 2014, the Dominican authorities launched a six-month naturalization plan that was meant to help people like Marisol that were not registered at birth to obtain identity documents. But by the time she had heard about the scheme, it had already expired.

To make matters worse, the family she works for as a cleaner is now threatening to sack her, afraid of the consequences of employing an undocumented person. With no identity papers, Marisol can’t register her children either. “I hoped they could have a better future, but without identity documents it is not going to be possible,” she told me.

I hoped they could have a better future, but without identity documents it is not going to be possible
Marisol

This heart-breaking story is just one of the dozens I heard during an Amnesty International visit to the Dominican Republic in the past two weeks. And yet, the Dominican government insists it has given all undocumented people born in the country to foreign parents, like Marisol, every opportunity to access identity papers.

Dominican authorities who met with us did not seem willing to acknowledge that many people were left out of the six-month “naturalization plan” they set up following the infamous 2013 ruling which deprived thousands of people of their Dominican nationality virtually overnight. They told us that, having conducted a “massive public campaign”, they had no reason to believe that many people didn’t know about the scheme.

However, over the past week we spoke to many people who, like Marisol, were not able to enroll in the plan. Dilta, a single mother, could not register any of her 10 children as she had no money to pay for the costly documents that she needed for all the applications. Rosana tried to enroll, but she failed. Her parents lacked any form of identification and officers would not accept an application unless she could provide their parents’ identity documents (even if this requirement is not contemplated in any law). Rosa was the only one in her family who did not apply, as she was away during the implementation of the plan and unable to communicate with her family during that time. Jessica simply didn’t hear about the plan.

In response to a chorus of criticism at national and international level, instead of implementing additional measures to solve these problems, the Dominican authorities have now launched a public campaign and a diplomatic tour to tell the world what they claim is the “real story” of the country’s policies towards migrants and their descendants.

One of the key messages of this campaign is that in the Dominican Republic nobody is stateless. In his speech at a Summit of Central-American leaders in Panama on 26 June, the President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina, gave a wealth of details and statistics to justify this claim.

However, statistics do not convey the drama of lives being turned upside down. Beyond the numbers, there are real stories of people who have had to leave school, have lost job opportunities, and in the worst cases, have been abused, discriminated against and exploited – all because they lack identity documents.

“If I had my documents, I would have finished school and I would be studying psychology at university,” Esterlina told me. “Because of the lack of documents, I had to give my son away as I had no job to feed him,” Mery admitted to me.

If I had my documents, I would have finished school and I would be studying psychology at university
Esterlinda

Without identity documents to prove their nationality, people like Marisol, Esterlina and Mery are condemned to being stuck in extreme poverty and have no hope of having or giving their children a better future.

The naturalization plan set up by the Dominican authorities was meant to mitigate the situation of statelessness of this population. But it is not enough.

Because of the lack of documents, I had to give my son away as I had no job to feed him
Mery

The Dominican authorities must acknowledge that people like Marisol exist, as their suffering and hopes bear witness. But above all, they must act to end their situation of statelessness and lack of documentation.

Toning down the PR spin and taking all appropriate measures to ensure that no one is left stateless in the Dominican Republic is the only way to convince the world that their policies have changed lives for the better.

This op-ed was originally published in the International Business Times

Read more:

No papers, no rights in the Dominican Republic: ‘I’m not able to do anything’ (Blog, 25 June 2015)

‘Everyone is afraid here’ – Dominican Republic’s looming crisis of mass expulsions (Blog, 18 June 2015)