Photo by Greg Constantine, photographer of stateless populations around the globe
Who are your role models? I asked Juan outside his home in an impoverished community of Haitian descendants near Santo Domingo. His answer was unexpected: "Jesus Christ, the fathers of the Dominican Republic, and Martin Luther King Jr." He explained that these men led their people to freedom, guided their followers to independence and fought against injustice. Born in the Dominican Republic to parents of Haitian descent, Juan dreams of leading his people to freedom, independence and justice, just as his role models did. Academically gifted, Juan understands that education is the key to his people's fight for liberation from statelessness in the Dominican Republic. Yet, despite fighting a legal battle since 2007, Juan continues to be denied the citizenship documents he deserves, ones requires to reach his dreams. "My future has been destroyed... I had a vision that by twenty I would finish high school, go to college, and earn a degree by 25. Now I am 25 and I have not even begun."
Countless young men and women of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic have been the driving force behind the domestic and international outrage at the denationalization policies of their country. Youth have taken to the streets in protest, organized with local and international NGOs, met with government officials and taken their petitions for equal treatment to domestic and international courts. Dominican officials have met their righteous outrage with perplexing and contradictory responses.
In the wake of the Constitutional Court decision of 2013 that retroactively stripped citizenship from anyone born of Haitian parents since 1929, the executive branch said the impact would be much less than the United Nations and major international NGOs claimed. Complex legislation was passed that claimed to fix the nationalization issue and government officials openly rebuked the international community for its criticism.
In September 2014, I was able to attend the First Global Forum on Statelessness at the Peace Palace in The Hague. On a panel about the Dominican Republic, government officials proclaimed that not one case of Statelessness existed in the Dominican Republic. A claim unanimously rebutted by every expert, entity and international body that has studied the situation of statelessness around the globe.
While the debate around nationality rages on and deportations of thousands makes international headlines, the Dominican government continues to violate the rights of its people in a greatly less visible and yet equally damaging way -- the education system.
In early 2014, I, as part of a team from the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute, traveled to the Dominican Republic to study the country's education system and how children of Haitian descent access their rights to education. Following over 90 interviews, analysis of national education policies, domestic laws and international standards, it was clear that at every level, the Dominican Republic denies children of Haitian decent equal access to education, in violation of international law.
Our resulting report, "Left Behind: How Statelessness in the Dominican Republic Limits Children's Access to Education," found that the Dominican Republic arbitrarily deprived Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality and identification documents. On the basis of this denial, they were exposed to violations of their human rights, including the right to education. Many children we interviewed were prevented from attending primary and secondary schools because they could not present valid birth certificates, systematically denied to children of Haitian decent. When allowed to attend school, they were denied the opportunity to take national examinations required to graduate if they did not provide their nationality documentation. Access to higher education was completely foreclosed without the national identity card denied to the vast majority of Dominican born Haitian descendants. Equal access to the education system was denied not only through legal barriers, but through inconsistent application of the law by government officials and educators who applied their own ruling on whether or not children of Haitian descent could access the education system. Laws, policies and practices all merge to create an education system that is leaving behind countless Dominican children born of Haitian ancestry. No change in law or practice suggests that our findings would be any different today.
The children left behind by the Dominican education system fully understand the stifling effect these violations will have on their futures. Mariana, a bright 14-year-old I sat down to interview, understands her government's denial of nationality and the long-term impact on her generation: "I would tell the president to help the people get documents, not just for them, but so that their children can have a better future. It is important because, if you are educated, you are ready to go places."
The children of the Dominican Republic, are ready to lead their nation to a brighter future. Thousands of youth of Haitian decent are already following in the footsteps of Juan's role models as they fight for justice and equality in the only nation they have ever called home. In the words of Juan's idol Martin Luther King Jr., "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." The government must recognize that denying its children full access to eduction serves only to stifle the progress of the entire nation.