The Dominican Republic has taken to closing its borders of land, sea and air with its neighbor Haiti and its refugees as the country is in the midst of a grave humanitarian crisis, blaming an issue with a Haitian canal’s construction.
On Friday, the Dominican Republic closed all borders with Haiti in an escalating argument over the construction of a Haitian canal that taps into the Massacre River, which flows between both Caribbean nations on the island of Hispaniola, according to Reuters.
President Luis Abinader issued the order last Monday because of supposed Dominican issues with the construction work. It is unclear how long the escalated closure of the borders will last, but Abinader has said the measures will remain “as long as necessary.”
Fighting a drought in Haiti’s Maribaroux plain, workers in Haiti resumed construction of the canal near the Massacre River this month, kickstarting the diplomatic crisis, said ABC News. The river is named after a violent dispute between Spanish and French colonizers in the 1700’s, and was the site of a mass killing of thousands of Haitians by Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, and the Dominican army in 1937.
Abinader has said the canal will divert too much water and affect Dominican farmers and the environment, but Haiti’s government says that the construction of the canal falls within its sovereign right to decide how to use its natural resources, and said it would take great pains to irrigate the Maribahoux plain.
Abinader claimed that the diversion of the river was being carried out by former politicians and local businessmen instead of the Haitian government. Dominican officials said it was an example of the “rising disorder” in Haiti and the government’s “lack of control” over the country, said Al Jazeera. It remains unclear who authorized the work on the Haitian canal.
There are 11 existing canals on the Dominican side of the Massacre River. Some experts said they think the Dominican government was at the very least overreacting.
“I think it is something that has been completely blown out of proportion, where the political is reigning more than the technical,” said Martín Meléndez, an engineering professor at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology, according to The New York Times. Melendez cited that Haitians “have the right” to draw water from the river, too.
Jean Brévil Weston, the group leader of the farmers working on the construction in the canal, said no one in Haiti had told them to stop working on the canal. On air over a Haitian radio station called Magik9, he said, “We get water or death…If we don’t find water for agriculture in the plain, we are already dead.”
President Abinader froze Haitian visas this week and closed over 200 miles of border because the two sides did not reach a resolution on Wednesday, according to AP News. A Haitian delegation met with Dominican politicians in Santo Domingo for last minute talks, but Abinader announced Thursday to shut the border between the two Caribbean nations at 6 a.m. Friday. After the meeting, criticism came from the Haitian government about the decision being “unilateral.”
The Dominican Republic has since shut all land, air and sea borders with Haiti, as well as deployed twenty tanks to a military camp on the border before the closure. The last time the border was closed was a temporary measure after Haitian President Jobenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021.
Since the assassination, Haiti has experienced an intense increase in gang violence. No federal elections have been held in recent years either, creating space for a spike in criminal activity in Port-au-Prince.
In December, the United Nations calculated that 60 percent of Port-au-Prince had been taken over by different gangs, said Al Jazeera. The violence has forced thousands of Haitians to flee their homes, with many crossing the border to the Dominican Republic, causing some increased issues between the two countries.
The country’s almost non-existent government system has made stopping gang attacks very difficult, and the violence has stymied access to healthcare facilities, clinics and schools, and deepened intense food shortages.
The Dominican Republic claimed on Monday that “The Haitian government has repeatedly admitted it does not have the capacity to resolve internal conflicts due to the loss of the Haitian state’s monopoly on force due to criminal organizations.”
With the onset of the canal construction, Abinader first closed the border near Dajabon, an important town for Haitians who buy and sell many types of goods and food.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic are both on the island Hispaniola and share much intertwined history and resources, but also have linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences, with many reports of xenophobia and anti-Black sentiment coming from the Haitian refugee crisis, as much of Haiti is of African descent and the Dominican Republic has most residents identifying as mixed-race, said Al Jazeera.
Former interim Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph has also accused Dominican critics of being nationalists and racists and defended the canal. Last year, Abinader banned Joseph from entering the Dominican Republic when acting as prime minister, increasing tensions between the two countries, said AP News.
Abinader has limited Haitian immigration into the Dominican Republic, deporting a total of more than 31 thousand Haitians in 2023 and even just residents of Haitian descent. AP News reported that 20,000 people were expelled in a nine-day period, often based solely on skin color. Last year, Dominican authorities deported more than 170,000 Haitians, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
According to Al Jazeera, Amnesty International has documented cases of assault, torture, arbitrary detention, mass deportation and discrimination against Haitian asylum seekers around the Americas, including in Peru, Chile, the United States, Mexico and The Dominican Republic.
“Instead of receiving solidarity from countries in the Americas, Haitians have suffered acts of racism, xenophobia, and systematic violence in their search for protection,” Amnesty International reported.
Abinadar’s administration also has started working on a 190-kilometer wall along the border between the countries since it was announced last year.
“These deportations have resulted in the separation of families. People with valid documents have been deported, people who were born here in the Dominican Republic have been deported,” Charpantier said. “These aren’t deportations. It’s persecution based on race.”
The United Nations warned earlier this week that Haitian women seeking pregnancy and postpartum medical care in the Dominican Republic were being arrested during check-ups and deported without a chance to appeal, Reuters said.
Moreover, many Haitians have been in the country for years, following the United States occupation of Haiti in 1915. Haitians have been working in agriculture and construction for lower pay than Dominicans, causing a strong economic dependency on Haitian labor. However, according to Al Jazeera, fear-mongering around the “Haitianisation” of Dominican society continues into the 21st century, which has previously led to bloodshed under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Dominicans are also worried about spillover of gang violence to the Republic.
Abadinar confirmed last month he is running for re-election. “Maybe Abinader thinks this is a way to portray himself as a strong nationalist leader who will be the only one … able to really stop the ‘Haitian invasion, as he calls [it],’” said Diego Da Rin with the International Crisis Group.
Reported by The New York Times, The UN said nearly half of the Haitian population is risking starvation. Abinader ordered his administration to buy all perishable goods normally exported to Haiti, including chicken, onions, beans and eggplants. The food will be used for government programs that offer free meals to students, said Joel Santos, minister of the president.
“Haitians are already in a very difficult position in terms of food security and I’m anticipating this will exacerbate that problem,” said Daniel Foote, Biden’s former special envoy to Haiti. “It’s going to have a particular negative impact on these desperate people who are barely surviving.”
Haiti serves as the Dominican Republic’s third-largest trading partner. A study by the Dominican Republic’s Central Bank found that $430 million in informal border trade was conducted in 2017 between the countries. Of that amount, more than $330 million consisted of exports to Haiti. There were $1 billion in exports to Haiti last year and $11 million in imports, according to the Dominican Republic’s Export and Investment Center. More than 25 percent of Haiti’s official imports come from the Dominican Republic, though another large share, including food, used to enter along the border, according to a report from the International Monetary Fund, said The New York Times.
“This border closure generates an evident lose-lose situation,” said Antonio Ciriaco, an economist at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. The DR also depends on Haitian workers who have previously crossed the border every day to labor in agriculture and construction industries.
“It’s really a very drastic measure that doesn’t make sense economically for either the Dominican Republic or Haiti,” said Da Rin, noting it will likely worsen the humanitarian crisis closer to the border.
Without some understanding from its closest connection the Dominican Republic in some form or another, it seems Haiti and its people will fail, exacerbating serious human rights issues and deepening a severe humanitarian crisis in the country. Peace in Santo Domingo rests in some ways on helping Haitian peoples in economic and labor trade, so will hopefully find ways to disavow President Abadiner’s extreme and cruel stance on the Haitian refugee crisis.