Generations at risk of statelessness
An interview with Attorney María Bizenny on denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent

In September 2013, the highest court in the Dominican Republic stripped hundreds of thousands of people born in the country of their Dominican citizenship, the vast majority of them of Haitian descent. The decision extended almost a century back, leaving generations of people stateless, or at risk of statelessness. 

This judgment was the culmination of a series of xenophobic and discriminatory laws, sentences, policies and practices aimed at curbing Haitian migration across the border. 

Denying a person’s right to nationality has grave consequences for everyday life. Victims have problems declaring their children as Dominican citizens, enrolling their children in school, entering higher education, finding formal  jobs and accessing social services.

While a 2014 law attempted to restore Dominican citizenship to some victims of the judgment , the problem is far from solved. The law arbitrarily divided victims into two groups: it promised to restore nationality to those who were registered as Dominican citizens before the 2013 judgment (Group A), and offered a path to citizenship via naturalization for those who were not registered (Group B), which required this group to self-report as foreigners in their own country. 

Six years after the judgment, victims continue to fight to regain their nationality and the problem persists for their sons and daughters. The Dominican Republic has systematically ignored the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights’ (IACtHR) recommendations and judgements. 

María Bizenny Martínez, a lawyer with the organization Sociocultural Movement for Haitian Workers (referred to in Spanish speaking countries by the acronym MOSCTHA), has been dedicated to the issue of denationalization and statelessness in the Dominican Republic for more than a decade. 

In a recent interview, she explained new developments in the situation in the last year, her own experiences under these policies, and the still-urgent reality for victims of the judgment and denationalization policies in the country. 

How did you begin to work on the issues of denationalization and statelessness in the Dominican Republic?

In 2008, I joined the MOSCTHA team to carry out support work, logistics in the office and in communities with the Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health, who gave talks on HIV/AIDS and STI prevention. During those talks I saw that many people came to ask about how they could access long-term treatment in hospitals, without their identity documents. I began to empathize with the situation, because I always remember that in 1996, I couldn’t manage to enter university, because my mother had not made my late declaration of birth official, a situation that took almost 8 months to resolve and, while she was undertaking this process, my identity card was suspended. 

Then, I was invited to Honduras to a workshop on human rights and human mobility, where I begin to analyze the situation of human rights in the Dominican Republic. A few months after my return, together with the organization’s legal team, we resumed a clinical legal program that had been suspended several years before. 

In 2011 a very curious thing happened, my husband went to look for a duplicate of my daughter’s birth certificate -- she was born in 2007 when he was serving with the National Police --  and to his complete surprise he was given an immigration certificate for her, based on my ID which said "Do not vote," and my skin color because I have a dark complexion. This was resolved the next day when my husband, who does not have foreign ancestry, threatened to make a scandal in the media, because they were “foreignizing”’ people without their knowledge. This deepened my desire to promote human rights and the eliminate of discrimination in the country. 

What is day to day work with victims of denationalization policies like?

Work in the current context is often frustrating, because we believe that we will obtain the positive resolution of a case, because steps are taken according to the national legal system, but everything is stalled due to administrative reasons, and the victims continue without obtaining a legal answer.

How do you describe the impact of these denationalization policies on the daily lives of the victims you work with?

The impact of the 2013 judgment was painful, in a social, economic and psychological context. Young people with many abilities have seen their lives suspended, they cannot access a higher or technical level of study, mainly those who have foreigners' records and those who have not been able to obtain anything.

The lack of economic development among the denationalized causes victims to be exploited in the workplace if they achieve some type of employment in the informal sector and women are often sexually exploited. Psychologically, people feel like they are in a maze with no way out, and some young people have even thought about suicide. When we go to the communities we see how the victims are immersed in pain when they also see their children who were also born in the territory of the trap that destiny has played.

At times, I start to analyze, question the actions of the State and the sectors of power and I reach the same conclusion, because I cannot understand, why continue to marginalize a sector of the population? … why confine them to a situation that is not good for anyone?  Because it is not good even for the State, having people in extreme poverty without social protection is an act of barbarism and irrationality. 

What are the biggest challenges in your work? 

The main challenges are the low support from the State for effective access to nationality, the low visibility of the issue at national and international levels, and the lack of funding in which we the civil society organizations are subject to in the promotion of human rights.

What have been the developments with respect to denationalization in the Dominican Republic in recent months? 

The IACHR recently established a dialogue table between civil society and the State, where as civil society we managed to clearly explain the violations of rights to the State and the ongoing situation of the population affected by the judgment despite the 2014 law. It was something very positive in principle, because there was a step forward. However, no matter how much effort is made to create the spirit of reaching an effective and lasting solution, it has been in vain, and the proposed solutions have been unclear. 

The State’s refusal to accept the recommendations of the IACHR and the IACtHR which propose the recognition and restitution of nationality are seen by many sectors of the State as an interference with the decisions of the country, instead of focusing on the situation of calamity and difficulty that people face every day. The application of the 2014 law leaves undefined the effective enjoyment of civil and political rights of the victims, mainly for Group B [who were not registered as Dominican citizens and whose legal status remains unclear], without clear remedy to getting their nationality back. The joint application of the court’s judgment and the subsequent law decreases the possibility that those left in a situation of statelessness can be recognized as nationals.

In your opinion, what viable solutions exist to resolve the situation of victims affected by denationalization policies?

The solution for this situation is stated clearly in the constitution of the Dominican Republic and the civil law on the registration of children, which allows Dominican citizenship to people born in national territory to foreign parents before the 2010 amendment to the constitution. 

What would you like the international community to know about the current state of the situation? How can they help?

The international community is one of the main allies in this fight. Technical and financial assistance to local organizations are necessary, but within a framework of accompaniment and not of protagonism, because many times when addressing the issue, international organizations do not consult the organizations that work in the field and everything becomes more confusing for those who do work with us. For some people in power in the international sphere and for some even within the country everything appears to be resolved.

MOSCTHA and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights are working together on the issue denationalization of Dominican people of Haitian descent, specifically before the IACHR in the case of Juliana Deguis Pierre and other Dominican adults and children who are victims of the Dominican Republic’s denationalization policies.. 

For more information about these issues, read our report Dreams Deferred: The struggle of Dominicans of Haitian descent to get their nationality back.