Haitian migrants reportedly treated like slaves

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Subject: Haitian migrants reportedly treated like slaves
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Fri Feb 19 1999 - 09:27:13 EST

Haitian migrants reportedly treated like slaves
Some are beaten, robbed by Dominican farmers and police who conspire
against them, activists say
By Tod Robberson
The Dallas Morning News, 02/13/99

DAJABON, Dominican Republic - The specter of slavery has returned to the
land where African workers staged the Western Hemisphere's first successful
slave revolt more than 200 years ago.

 Here on the Dominican border with Haiti, human rights activists charge,
farmers are working in collusion with police and other authorities to round
up Haitian migrant workers and place them in virtual forced-labor camps on
border-area farms.

 "We are slaves here. They treat us worse than we were treated in Haiti
under the dictatorship," said Emile Floribar, a farm laborer from northern
Haitian port town of Cap-Haitien.

 Several months ago, Mr. Floribar crossed the Massacre River, which serves
as a natural border between the two Caribbean countries, hoping to find
seasonal work on a Dominican sugar cane farm. A nightmarish ordeal soon
followed, which he and others described as a fairly typical experience.

 Mr. Floribar said he was put to work for three months clearing sugar cane
fields. He was beaten repeatedly by police, robbed of everything he owned
and threatened by his employers with deportation if he complained about his
treatment. He wound up returning to Haiti without receiving a dime's worth
of pay for nearly three months of work.

Clubs and whips

His story was echoed by dozens of other Haitian migrants awaiting
deportation at a Dominican army base in Dajabon, and across the border in
Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

 At the army base, Dominican soldiers wielding clubs and whips stood
nearby, occasionally beating their captives on the head, neck and buttocks
even though a reporter was a witness. Some of the prisoners said they had
been forced by soldiers to work, without compensation, in neighboring
fields that apparently provide the army base with vegetables.

 The army commander in Dajabon declined to comment or give his name. "There
are times when you can see them being herded down the streets. They beat
them like slaves. This is normal," said Arcadio Sosa, a human rights
monitor with the Dominican organization Border Solidarity.

 Observers fear that Haitian workers now are more vulnerable to
exploitation and abuse in the Dominican Republic than they were during even
the harshest days of the Haitian military dictatorship, which ended in 1994
when 20,000 U.S. troops invaded to restore democratic rule.

Depths of poverty

 Today, 80 percent of the Haitian population is without a job or severely
underemployed. Per-capita gross national product is only $400, making Haiti
the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The northern border region in
Haiti is still recovering from the battering it received last September by
Hurricane Georges, which wiped out farms and left most towns knee-deep in mud.

 "Migration in this area is going to become a bigger and bigger problem,"
said Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the New York-based National
Coalition for Haitian Rights. "You've got a situation in which this is all
going to come to a boil."

 Human rights investigators and Haitian government officials have
complained that authorities in rural Dominican districts are turning a
blind eye to the exploitation of Haitian workers. The Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights is planning a mission to the border region this
month to investigate reported abuses.

 Dominican authorities have sought to minimize the problem, even amid
allegations that some of the worst labor abuses occurred on
government-owned sugar cane farms.

 "It's the opposite of what they say. We treat them well," said Jose
Medina, head of the Dominican office of migration in Dajabon. "We give them
free passes so they can come here and buy Dominican products. They pay no
taxes. ... Our relations are brotherly."

 A man in civilian clothes sat next to Mr. Medina, holding a whip and
carrying a holstered gun. He stood up and began beating two Haitians who
had stepped out of line at a border crossing point.

Longtime hostilities

 Relations between the two nations that occupy the Caribbean island of
Hispaniola have long been frosty. Both are populated primarily by
descendants of slaves brought in from Africa by the French government to
harvest sugar cane and coffee. In 1791, the island's occupants rose up in
revolt against the French and became the first free nation of ex-slaves in
the New World.

 The Dominican Republic broke away from Haiti in 1844, and in 1937, an
estimated 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered by Dominican soldiers at the
border, giving the Massacre River its name.

 This month, more than 10,000 Haitians are expected to cross the Massacre
as the Dominican Republic prepares its annual sugar cane harvest.

 "The contracts and work permits they will get are bogus," Mr. Sosa said.
"They [farm bosses] will promise them food, housing, work tools. But when
they get there, they get nothing. They have to sleep on the floor. They are
charged a fee for their tools and food. They cannot leave. If they try to
escape, they are beaten."

 Haitian workers who have experienced the ordeal say they often avoid cane
plantations, instead seeking work at farms harvesting coffee or rice. Even
so, they often are rounded up by armed men in civilian clothes, known as
"Tigers," then taken to cane plantations and forced to work.

 Salaries typically are withheld until the final day of the harvest, Mr.
Sosa said. When that day comes, however, the Tigers typically return to
round up the workers and hand them over to the police. Their salaries are
withheld by their employers or confiscated by the police, he said.

 Jetes Dorvelus, a father of eight from Auborgne, Haiti, said he had been
searched and robbed by the Tigers with Dominican police present. He
described conditions today as improved compared to several years ago.

 "Now at least they're not killing people," Mr. Dorvelus said of the
Dominican police. "You still have to stay away from the Tigers. If they
catch you and you don't have any money for them, they can kill you."

 Even for those who receive their salaries, the pay scale is described as
barely a subsistence wage.

 Pierre Vol, a cane worker from Desalines, Haiti, said he worked three
months in the Dominican Republic earlier this year harvesting tobacco for
roughly $8 per day. After three months of work, when he went to collect his
salary, he was met at the paymaster's office by police.

 "I didn't say a word, because if you demand your money, they'll beat you
up," he said. "I kept my mouth shut and let them take me away. The payroll
people just smiled."

Cold reality

 Mr. Sosa said he spends much of his time trying to track down farm bosses
who have their workers arrested to avoid paying them. He displayed a thick
file of complaints by Haitians who had been given stamped and signed
receipts for farm work they had performed, essentially without compensation.

 One receipt was for a single worker who had harvested 23,000 tons of sugar
cane but was never paid the $15 due him. Another was bilked out of $12 for
cutting 19,000 tons of cane.

 "The Dominican government will say this is not happening. They will say
that they have fixed the problem," he said, flipping through the stack of
receipts and complaints. "But we know the reality is otherwise."

Melanie Orhant

Human Trafficking Program
Global Survival Network

P.O. Box 73214
Washington, DC 20009
T: 387-0028
F: 387-2590
Email: morhant@igc.org

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