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Exploitative and ineffective international engagement created Haiti’s migration crisis

‘The root causes of Haiti’s suffering remain largely obscured by the crises of the present.’

Haitians deported by the US authorities leave the airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, on 19 September 2021: Thousands had set up a makeshift encampment under a bridge in Texas after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico.
Haitians deported by the US authorities leave the airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, on 19 September 2021: Thousands had set up a makeshift encampment under a bridge in Texas after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico. (Ralph Tedy Erol/REUTERS)

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The recent arrival of tens of thousands of Haitian migrants at the US-Mexico border is no isolated phenomenon. It is the result of overlapping crises that stem, in many ways, from exploitative policies – ranging from crippling interference in the country’s internal affairs to an ineffective and proprietary approach to foreign assistance by the United States and others. 

Expecting short-term, punitive measures – such as restricting asylum access and deporting thousands – to stem Haitian migrant flows is akin to using duct tape to stop a pipe leak: It may temporarily reduce numbers, but it will not prevent people from undertaking dangerous journeys in search of a better life – as illustrated by the case of 126 mostly Haitian asylum seekers and migrants en route to the US southern border who were rescued from a shipping container abandoned on the side of the road in Guatemala on 9 October. 

Haitians, human rights advocates, and Haiti’s true friends – i.e. anyone who believes people should be able to live in their homeland with dignity – must be prepared to not only protect asylum seeker and migrant rights at the US border but also to ensure that no Haitian in the future has to make the difficult decision to leave their home out of desperation.

The international media is quick to draw attention to Haiti’s current problems: corrupt political leadership, poor governance, and a failure of the rule of law that has enabled impunity and allowed the country’s crippled but vital economic sectors to be taken over by a predatory monopoly. Meanwhile, the root causes of Haiti’s suffering remain largely obscured by the crises of the present.

To understand and address Haiti’s current migration trends, our lens must be widened to take into account the malign and corrosive influence of US foreign policy toward the country over decades, including US backing for its oligarchy and political cronies. And it must also encompass the ineffective, debilitating impact of a humanitarian aid system that’s not accountable to the Haitian government (nor its people), and that bypasses local civil society, turning the country into a republic of NGOs.

For decades, so-called allies have thwarted the will of the Haitian people by propping up dictatorships, interfering in the country’s elections, even supporting an armed rebellion in 2004 that toppled the first democratically elected president and plunged Haiti into chaos. Even now, these supposed allies continue to try to dictate Haiti’s political affairs through the US-led Core Group, composed of ambassadors from the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, the EU, and representatives of the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS). 

There is little to show for the $13 billion invested in the country since the devastating 2010 earthquake.

All of this perpetuates the legacy and intractable impacts of the infamous independence debt imposed on the new nation of Haiti in 1804 by France, the former colonial master, instituting a cycle of paralysing interference. 

Moreover, because of the broken model of international humanitarian aid and development assistance, there is little to show for the $13 billion invested in the country since the devastating 2010 earthquake, which claimed between 100,000 and 300,000 lives. 

Instead, life has only become increasingly unbearable: a cholera epidemic introduced by UN peacekeeping forces in 2010 infected more than 820,000 Haitians and killed more than 10,000 people over the course of a decade; rising gang violence, kidnappings, and turf wars have put parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, under siege for months and destroyed homes; and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already dire economic situation, pushing food prices higher and putting basic commodities out of reach for many.  

All of this was before the Haitian president was assassinated in early July – plunging the country into further turmoil and uncertainty – and also before, in August, another massive earthquake (the third in 10 years) devastated Haiti’s southern peninsula, a part of the country still rebuilding after the destruction of 2016's Hurricane Matthew.

Changing migration patterns

It is not an overstatement to say that Haiti has become unlivable, and it is no surprise that the situation in the country has been pushing people to migrate for quite some time. 

After 2010, aspiring migrants in Haiti shifted away from historic destinations – such as the United States, Canada, and the Dominican Republic – and toward South America. 

A combination of factors – including the demand for labour in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil’s leading role in the UN’s Stabilisation Mission in Haiti after 2004, and favorable migration policies – lured young Haitian men to Brazil. Haitian women soon followed – although in lesser numbers. From a small amount of mostly university scholarship students in the late 2000s, the population of Haitians in Brazil climbed to more than 129,000 in 2018. 

Chile – also with favourable migration policies, a stable economy, and job opportunities – began attracting Haitian migrants as well. Some Haitians moved to Chile from Brazil after a 2015 economic downturn fed xenophobia and led to migrants being scapegoated for rising unemployment rates. Others came directly from Haiti. Between 2011 and 2017, the country saw a tenfold increase in net Haitian migrant entries, and by 2018 approximately 180,000 Haitians were living in Chile, accounting for 12.5 percent of the country’s migrant population. 

Particularly in the Global South, today’s host nation may become tomorrow’s transit country.

A combination of economic, social, political, and environmental factors inform Haitians’ decision to migrate. But that decision does not always point to a single destination: Particularly in the Global South, today’s host nation may become tomorrow’s transit country. 

The rising visibility of a large Black migrant population led to anti-Haitian sentiment in Chile, which fed into the presidential campaign of conservative Sebastián Piñera, who took office in 2018, and enacted migration policies that sent a clear message: Haitians were no longer welcome. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this trend and the mistreatment of Haitians, who many Chileans blamed for the spread of the virus. 

Now, with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising xenophobia, and increasingly hostile policies in South America – not to mention the catastrophic situation in Haiti – tens of thousands feel compelled to embark on a more than 11,000-kilometre trek overland through treacherous terrain (some with children in tow) toward the US southern border in search of a better life.

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Failure to see this full picture prevents us from understanding that the current arrival of Haitian migrants at the US-Mexico border isn’t simply a sudden and spontaneous event. It is the product not only of evolving migration trends in the region, but also of decades of exploitative policies by the United States and the international community that have undermined Haiti’s sovereignty and development while supporting – or at least turning a blind eye to – corrupt leadership. In the process, the will of the Haitian population has been treated with indifference. 

The migrant crisis will not abate by redirecting Haitians to Mexico, Brazil, or Chile, or through inhumane mass deportations. Against all odds, human beings will always search for a better life – no matter the cost or risk – when the alternative is deprivation, violence, and even death.

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