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Haitian Migrants: Hidden Faces of Human Trafficking in the Dominican Republic

Haitian migrants to the Dominican Republic are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, yet antitrafficking initiatives tend to overlook them. The paradox plagues much antitrafficking research and policymaking. The same factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking—race, class, gender, immigration status—also exclude them from initiatives to protect them.

In the case of Haitian migrants, being black, poor, and mostly men with an irregular immigration status means they are more likely to be viewed as smuggled persons (and therefore as criminals) rather than as trafficked persons (and therefore as victims). Correcting this problem requires a focus on human security rather than on state security. And a greater appreciation of the structural causes of vulnerability to human trafficking is needed.

Mobility and Vulnerability

While the ongoing pandemic highlights public health as a possible security risk linked to human mobility, people on the move face a much broader set of risks, including human trafficking. Formal border closures and travel restrictions have not stemmed cross-border population flows between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola. Instead, Haitian migrants continue to cross the porous border, facing increased risks as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic. Also much broader structural issues make them vulnerable to exploitation and susceptible to exclusion. Haitian migrants are much more susceptible to human trafficking because their poverty, racial identity, irregular immigration status and even nationality collectively result in multiple forms of marginalization and vulnerability.

Where are the Haitian Victims?

It is curious, then, that not a single Haitian victim of human trafficking appears in official statistics on human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Although reports on major human trafficking busts suggest that Haitians are among the victims of trafficking in the country, data from the government reflect only Dominican and Venezuelan victims. Yet Haitians are vulnerable to trafficking. Although they are the most likely victims, they are the least likely to be recognized as such. Instead, they figure overwhelmingly in the category of smuggled migrants, and are, therefore, more likely to be deported than protected.

In 2018, the government reported 96 victims of human trafficking. Foreign victims were accorded specific benefits including medical and psychological attention, access to food and shelter, and medical assistance. Consistent with international law on human trafficking, victims were exonerated from penalties related to any crimes linked to their trafficked status. Furthermore, the government outlined a series of measures established to protect victims. However, the measures outlined specifically for Haitian migrants were geared to preventing smuggling, not human trafficking. While no Haitian victim of human trafficking was identified, the same report listed more than 52,000 Haitians as “undocumented migrants” detained by authorities.

Biases in the antitrafficking regime compound the situation of Haitian victims of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Women are assumed to be the most likely victims and men the most likely perpetrators of mainly sex trafficking. However, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime’s 2014 and 2016 reports show a steady increase in the cases of trafficked men who represented about 30 percent of total victims, while forced labor accounted for about 40 percent of all trafficking cases.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, forced labor accounted for more than half of detected cases. Yet, in the Dominican Republic where Haitian men comprise the greater share of the labor force in exploitative industries such as construction and agriculture, men do not appear at all on the antitrafficking radar.

They are overlooked, because men do not fit the ideal category of victims. It does not help that victimhood connotes powerlessness and helplessness, which are not generally associated with men. Consequently, the annual Trafficking in Persons Reports continue to highlight conditions of forced labor in these sectors in the Dominican Republic, yet the government takes little to no corrective measures.

However, the issue is not only a question of gender. The vulnerability of Haitian women to human trafficking across the border has been well-documented despite the lack of hard data. It is surprising, therefore, that they do not appear among officially recognized victims of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Poor, dark-skinned, Haitian women do not seem to have the same claim to victimhood as the more “Latino” Venezuelan migrants or Dominicans. The intersection of race, class, gender, and undocumented status plays the dual role of making Haitian women particularly vulnerable to trafficking and preventing them from being recognized as victims. Yet they must be recognized as victims if they are to access the protection that the state is required to provide to victims.

Why Have They Been Overlooked?

Perhaps there really are no Haitian victims of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. This would mean, however, that the Trafficking in Persons Reports, the International Organization for Migration, NGOs such as OBMICA, and scholars have all somehow got it wrong. Perhaps, it is a question of state interest. Victims of trafficking have a right to protection that comes with a responsibility on the part of the state. If they cannot be criminalized, then they cannot be expelled, and the Dominican government would be required to grant rights to Haitian victims. However, if they are considered smuggled migrants, then they would be breaking immigration laws and could be criminalized and expelled.

Even so, why only exclude Haitians from “victimhood?” Could it be that the antitrafficking system is blind to Haitian victims because it is not looking for them in the first place? If there is an “ideal victim” which Haitian migrants do not fit, then they are not likely to be identified as victims. The flaw would then rest with the system that constructs human trafficking along gendered lines, ignoring the intersection of race, class and documentation status which determine who is the most vulnerable. Unless policymakers consider these causes of vulnerability to trafficking, they will continue to overlook the most marginalized and most susceptible populations such as Haitian migrants.

New Security Beat


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