Where do you go when nowhere will welcome you?

States must protect thousands of Haitians on the move. This is how.

Two deadly earthquakes a decade apart. Political turmoil. The assassination of a President. Rampant insecurity. Kidnappings. Multiple massacres allegedly with state involvement. Food insecurity. Fuel shortages. A rise in gender-based violence.

The list goes on.

These are just some of the reasons why Haitians have, for years, made the decision that life was unsafe or untenable in their home countries and left in search of safety and stability for their families.

The state has, for years, failed to address the violence and instability throughout the country, and with natural disasters further destabilizing Haiti, many people have been left with few choices but to leave if they wished to survive. The international community’s efforts have also failed to address the most pressing human rights issues in the country.

Yet states within the Americas have also failed to protect them.

A few weeks ago, an Amnesty International and Haitian Bridge Alliance delegation travelled to Tapachula, Mexico, on the border with Guatemala, where we had the opportunity to interview more than 60 Haitians, all stuck in the city, which Mexican authorities have converted into a kind of “roofless prison,” while they await their asylum claims to be processed.

Haitians are not safe or secure anywhere. This was particularly clear after hearing dozens of people describe in detail how in multiple countries in the region, they had experienced human rights violations including detention and unlawful pushbacks, extortion, anti-Black racism, abuses including gender-based violence by armed groups, and destitution.

The majority of people we interviewed had left Haiti some years ago, and many went to live and work in Chile. However, they felt compelled to leave because of racism and the inability to regularize their immigration status under the Piñera administration. This left them with the uncertainty of knowing if their families were going to be safe. But although the people we spoke to could not stay in Chile, they told us they cannot return to Haiti.

All those we spoke with in Tapachula expressed fear of being deported to Haiti. One man told us he had fled Haiti months after unidentified men killed a relative who belonged to a political party. No one was ever prosecuted for the killing. A woman said she left after armed men went from house to house in her neighbourhood, burglarizing, beating and raping her family and her neighbours. She told us that reporting to the police was futile because they could not protect her, and she feared retaliation.

But that is just one part of the story.

While Mexico, the United States, and other countries in the region have the duty to ensure Haitians on the move are safe, as set out in a resolution recently published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they are not doing so.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, since mid-September, countries across the Americas have deported some 12,000 Haitians back to Haiti, the majority from the US.

In a public statement which Amnesty International, and seven other organizations, published today, we set out how the US continues to violate the rights of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers by expelling them under a Title 42 policy –an order under the guise of public health whose misuse to conduct mass expulsions has been widely condemned by the UN and health experts, among others — largely without providing access to the US asylum system or protection screenings mandated under the Convention against Torture.

But Mexican authorities are not doing much better. According to our research, Mexico’s immigration officials continue to pushback Haitians into Guatemala, often at night, without individualised assessments of people’s protection needs, and without giving them information about their right to claim asylum, in violation of international human rights standards.

As of November, more than 47,000 Haitians had claimed asylum in Mexico, but only 37% had received refugee status or complimentary protection, according to data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR). This is compared with a success rate of 97% for Venezuelans or 84% for Hondurans. One of the reasons for this is Mexico is failing to consider Haitians refugees as defined under the Cartagena Declaration, something Mexico is already doing for other nationalities who are fleeing “massive human rights violations” or “generalized violence”, as defined in the Convention, and which clearly applies to Haiti. It is also failing to provide other forms of legal residency to Haitians, something Mexican law allows for.

But the story continues.

To arrive in Mexico, Haitians must travel overland through six to nine Latin American countries, always passing through the gruelling Darien Gap, a stretch of jungle and mountains filled with multiple dangers, including criminal armed groups.

Some of the people we interviewed teared up as they told us they had witnessed armed groups raping women migrants they had travelled through the jungle with or described the risks of the journey for their families. Even for researchers accustomed to documenting human rights violations, these stories are hard to listen to.

So too are the stories of constant microagressions to overtly racist acts that Haitians told us they experienced in many of the countries they travelled through.

“Wherever we go, they (people) look at us like ‘children of poor people’”, one man told us. Another woman said that on the bus in Chile she sometimes felt white people would move to another seat to avoid sitting next to her. Others said they experienced racial discrimination at work and were paid less and required to do more.

Another man told us that en route to Mexico, police officials in four separate countries stopped the bus he was travelling on, requested passports and then extorted everyone onboard, forcing them to pay between $20 and 30 for them to continue. On one occasion in Honduras, he said, the police made all the white people get off the bus, and then extorted all the black people who they kept inside. He was unsure if they also extorted the lighter skinned migrants, but felt Haitians were racially profiled and discriminated against.

For all these reasons, for many Haitians, nowhere is safe.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

States across the region have in place the legal frameworks to provide Haitians with international protection in this situation, through granting asylum, or alternative forms of legal residency with appropriate safeguards, as also recommended by the UN.

In any research, you always remember the emotions people transmit. During this research trip, we will remember the dignity and determination of the Haitians we interviewed, and their strong need for stability after enduring so much trauma. They have travelled far in search of the things all humans work to secure – access to shelter, food, schools, and other basic needs. Governments across the region seem to forget that these protections are also protections governments have the obligation to provide, but which they are shamefully failing to fulfil.

This article was originally published in El Diario