Americas leaders must wake up to drama of “ghost citizens”

By Robin Guittard, Campaigner on the Caribbean at Amnesty International

Top diplomats of the Americas are due to meet on 15 June in Santo Domingo to discuss the future of the region under the motto of “sustainable development for the Americas.”

But while the 34 Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the region discuss the future of almost one billion people, the prospects of a bright young girl in the north of the Dominican Republic are about to receive a huge blow.

As the Americas’ leaders exchange ideas on how to make the region a better place for all, this top student will soon be told that her 8th grade exams are the end of the line when it comes to her education. She will be told that she cannot enroll in high school, let alone pursue her dream of going to university, becoming a professional, accessing a formal job that pays well enough to lift her family out of poverty.

But while the 34 Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the region discuss the future of almost one billion people, the prospects of a bright young girl in the north of the Dominican Republic are about to receive a huge blow.
Robin Guittard, Campaigner on the Caribbean at Amnesty International.

Her outlook in life will be cut drastically short because of a piece of paper that the Dominican authorities have denied her.

Jessica was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents in 2001. Decades of entrenched discrimination against Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent, means that her parents were not given a proof-of-birth certificate by the hospital’ staff.

Without this piece of paper, it has been impossible for Jessica’s birth to be declared in the Dominican civil registry and for her to apply for identity documents that recognize the nationality she is entitled to.

Lacking an ID card means she cannot study, find a formal job or even see a doctor.

Jessica is not the only one to face this tragic drama. In fact, the Dominican Republic is home to the largest population of stateless people in the Americas, virtual ghost citizens with no rights.

The Dominican Republic is home to the largest population of stateless people in the Americas, virtual ghost citizens with no rights.
Rob Guittard

The situation became even more tragic when in September 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic ruled that children born in the country to undocumented foreign parents since 1929 had never been entitled to Dominican nationality. The judgment disproportionately affected Dominicans of Haitian descent like Jessica and constituted a retroactive, arbitrary and discriminatory deprivation of nationality.

After months of international outcry, in May 2014, the Dominican Congress passed a new law with the aim of mitigating this human drama. However, poor implementation and administrative obstacles meant that tens of thousands of people like Jessica could not get their Dominican nationality recognized. If they don’t hold another nationality, they are stateless.

Tens of thousands of people are now facing the terrifying prospect of a future full of frustrations and of being denied their full potential.

Stateless people are like ghost citizens. No country recognizes them as their nationals so they do not exist in the eyes of any government. The lack of papers becomes a serious personal crisis at the time of seeking job, of going to university, or for getting access to health care. Stateless people have no identity document so they can’t travel or marry. Their kids are generally born stateless because they’re prevented to have their births declared.

It is hugely ironic that the governments from across the Americas will be busy discussing sustainable development with this crisis as a backdrop.

It is hugely ironic that the governments from across the Americas will be busy discussing sustainable development with this crisis as a backdrop.
Robin Guittard

How can our leaders promise sustainable development but turn a blind eye to the fate of tens of thousands of stateless people in the Dominican Republic?

Sustainable development means for Jessica to be able to finish school and perhaps one day to go to university. For her, it means being able to rise up from poverty and help her family access a better life. It means to be recognized as what she is: a Dominican citizen with full rights who is eager to help her country be more equal and where the fruits of growth and development are shared amongst everyone and not only between the wealthy minorities.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have worked hard to deny that statelessness exists but as the country’s population grows (and more children are born stateless) the problem is only likely to continue to increase.

Resolving this urgent crisis must be a top priority for the newly elected Dominican authorities but other governments in the region also have a role to play – they must not turn a blind eye to this crisis.