For many Haitians fleeing dictators and poverty at home and looking for work in the cane fields, the Dominican Republic has long been a refuge. However, possibly a million Haitians or people of Haitian ancestry are now being affected by the adoption of a new law concerning citizenship in the Dominican Republic. Many descendants of Haitian workers living in the Dominican Republic could face deportation to Haiti or be forced to live outside the law, with no legal status in the country.
Haitian Noisilus Siri Yan came to the Dominican Republic in the 1970s to work in the sugar industry. He met and married Losita, a Dominican of Haitian descent, whose father worked as a cane cutter. Together they raised four children - all born on Dominican soil.
The family lives in Batey 43, an impoverished village of a few hundred Dominicans of Haitian descent, located 43km from the capital Santo Domingo.
For many years the sugar cane work kept the Siri Yan family afloat, but when the sugar industry went into decline, the family, along with their neighbours, was left struggling to escape the poverty and desperation of Batey 43.
"I would describe this place as a desert. One without an exit or entrance. We see the same thing every day. Here you leave and return as if you were meant to stay here for life. It's like a countryside with no life. There are no jobs here .... Life for someone who grows up in a batey means living with misery, living with hard work, going through difficult days," Altagracia, Noisilus' daughter, says.
Noisilus found a job clearing brush on a nearby farm for very little pay, and soon the four Siri Yan children became the only hope the family had of pulling itself out of poverty. The father emphasised education as a ticket out of a desperate situation. They would go to school - just like all the other Dominican children - obtain a university education, and get a well-paid white collar job. This was the plan to get the family out of poverty. But eventually the plan began to unravel.
The first child to hit a wall was Felipe. He studied mathematics in school and wanted to major in statistics at university. When he graduated high school with good grades, he was offered a university scholarship. All he needed was a copy of his birth certificate and to prove that he was a Dominican citizen.
He went to the civil office, but instead of providing him with the necessary documents for school, he was told that he was the child of foreigners, and the office could not give documents to a foreigner. Felipe lost the scholarship, and now works in construction, alongside recent Haitian immigrants, in Santo Domingo.
Altagracia Siri Yan is 21 and applied to study at university in 2010. She had a sponsor willing to help pay for her university education - all she needed was to fill out the necessary documents. She went to the local civil affairs office to get a copy of her birth certificate, but they sent her to the main civil affairs archive in the capital Santo Domingo. She went back and forth between the various civil affairs offices 10 times looking for her documents. With the application deadline approaching, Altagracia was losing time and money.
Ultimately the window of opportunity shut on her dream of attending university when government officials told her that they could not provide the necessary documents because her parents were foreigners.
Discrimination and deportation
Sonia Pierre, a Dominican human rights activist, says the changes in Dominican citizenship laws have made hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, in effect, stateless. She points to a landmark international court decision in 2005 calling on the Dominican government to end its discrimination against this population. But the government did the opposite - it hardened its policies and began retroactively withdrawing citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Claiming that it is only trying to "clean up" its civil registry rolls, the government now systematically refuses to issue identity documents to Dominicans of Haitian descent. Officials often deny these documents because someone has a Haitian-sounding last name or "looks" Haitian.
Sonia Pierre's organisation, the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA), has documented thousands of cases where the government is systematically denying rights to Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. Those affected come from all walks of life - schoolteachers, lawyers, community organisers, doctors, entertainers, caregivers, students, and military officers. Now these people are in danger of becoming stateless in the country of their birth and residency.
Many are facing deportation to Haiti or a life outside the law. "If I don't have my ID and I'm walking down the street, immigration may grab and deport me like they do with many Haitians," says Daniela Siri Yan, a vivacious 18-year-old who studied computer science at the local high school.
For the Siri Yan children, there is no going to back to Haiti. They consider themselves Dominican. They do not know anything about Haiti. The Haitian government will not take them until they can prove they are Haitian. They are as Felipe says: "Like a horse, tied between two poles."
After witnessing her siblings, Felipe and Altagracia, fail to gain the necessary documents for university, Daniela has dropped out of high school. Why bother, she says, if the same thing will happen to her?
"The big problems are the economic situation, the poverty and the papers they deny us," Daniela says. "I consider myself Dominican because it is said where you are born is where you have your nationality. I know nothing about Haiti. What would I do in Haiti? I don't even know where Haiti is."
Now she and her siblings, like hundreds of thousands of other Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, find themselves stranded in the Dominican Republic without proof of citizenship or a future.
"Stranded: The Stateless Haitians" airs on the Al Jazeera English program Witness this week, starting Tuesday, July 12, 2011, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 22:30; Wednesday: 09:30; Thursday: 03:30; Friday: 16:30; Saturday: 22:30; Sunday: 09:30; Monday: 03:30; Tuesday: 16:30.