The mayor of Iñapari, a Peruvian town on the border with Brazil, has declared a state of emergency. With 300 Haitian migrants stranded in this small and isolated community, social services, food, and water resources are straining to accommodate this influx of people.
The situation in Iñapari is not wholly unique. In Tabatinga, a similarly remote town on the Brazilian side of the border, some 1,000 Haitians are also stranded, living in squalor as they attempt to journey into Brazil.
Haitian migration is not a new phenomenon. Haitians have an especially long and tumultuous history migrating to their neighbor, the Dominican Republic (DR). The 2010 earthquake, however, exacerbated these patterns. The Dominican Migration Directorate claims that in 2010 alone, some 200,000 Haitians migrated to the DR. According to the Dominican Embassy, there are now between 600,000 to one million Haitian migrants in the DR.
“After the earthquake,” says Dr. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, professor of Hispanic studies at Vassar College, “The relationships in terms of migration between the Dominican Republic and Haiti were terrible. Compound that with issues of citizenship and you have a volatile and very difficult situation.”
In Haiti, one million people are still homeless, and reconstruction faces considerable political, economic, and logistical hurdles. For Paravisini-Gebert, “It’s part of human nature to search for better opportunities. As a human species you have to do everything you can do to survive. As long as Haiti continues to be the way it is, more Haitians are going to be leaving.”
But poverty, discrimination, and increasing immigration restrictions in the Dominican Republic have prompted many Haitians look elsewhere. Parvavisini-Gebert sees Brazil as a solution, “Taking some of the pressure away from the Dominican Republic.”
Elizabeth Falconi, professor of anthropology at Swarthmore College, believes that Brazil might function as an open palette. “There isn’t a hugely long history of Haitian Brazilian or Haitian Peruvian migration,” says Falconi. “So a lot of the contexts in which people are encountering one another are really in the process of being understood.”
Since the earthquake, an estimated 4,000 Haitians have embarked upon the long and costly journey to Brazil. Doctors Without Borders states that two-thirds of the 1,200 Haitians in Tabatinga have been directly affected by the earthquake.
Though Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has passed legislation to accommodate Haitian migrants, there are limits to these accommodations. As of January, only 100 migrants will receive working visas monthly, though the number of Haitians seeking permits is far higher. Such restrictions are leaving the Haitians in limbo, stranded indefinitely in border towns, waiting for clearance to continue their journeys.
Tyler Fainstat, Executive Director of Doctor’s Without Borders Brazil, tells MediaGlobal, that one year ago, “In Tabatinga, we found people living in extremely poor conditions, in overcrowded spaces, with no assistance from the government. At the time, it was an invisible situation.” Today, Doctors Without Borders provides health education, hygienic supplies, water purification tools, and psychological support to Haitians in Tabatinga.
Under the new Brazilian regulations, Haitians who arrived in Tabatinga before 13 January will be given visas. Those that arrived after, however, face a more uncertain future. “It is not clear what will happen to this group,” says Fainstat. “As Haitians in Tabatinga haven´t received any assistance from government authorities, they have been reliant on the goodwill of local people and the help offered by a few civil society organizations.”
Residents of both Tabatinga and Iñapari have been fairly accommodating to the migrants thus far. Yet Dr. Maria Cruz-Torres, Professor of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, foresees a shift in attitude as resources diminish and social services are strained. “There will be more struggles for jobs, more struggles for food, and everything else; infrastructure, and health care access.”
In January, the murder of Inolus Pierrelys, a Haitian man living in Manaus, heightened concern over social tensions between residents and Haitians. According to Fainstat, there is little to no interaction between local residents and Haitians. While Fainstat attributes this social divide primarily to language, for Cruz-Torres, race is an inevitable factor in how Haitians will be received in border towns, and within Brazil: “There is a color line in Brazil, a color scheme.”
At the very least, Brazil offers greater opportunities for citizenship than Haitians had been offered in the Dominican Republic. Last year, the Dominican Republic passed legislation forbidding children born to Haitian parents in the DR from attaining citizenship. In Brazil, however, a Haitian migrant has five years after obtaining a visa to obtain a job and permanent residence. Under these policies, Haitians will have access to the same civil services as permanent Brazilian citizens – those fortunate enough to be granted one of 100 monthly visas, that is.
With the billions of dollars that have gone to Haiti’s reconstruction, an analysis of migration patterns boomerangs back to the original question. For Paravisini-Gebert, the real issue is the impetus to leave Haiti. “The question we need to ask ourselves is, what is actually going on in Haiti? What is preventing Haiti from achieving a more democratic society, where people can improve their living conditions and maybe get a better education and create infrastructure and jobs?”