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HAITI/DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: New-found friends?

SANTO DOMINGO/PORT-AU-PRINCE, 21 January 2010 (IRIN) - Within one week of the earthquake that drove tens of thousands of Haitians out of their homes, its island neighbour, the Dominican Republic, is being transformed into a base for humanitarian efforts, from border soup kitchens to road convoys, warehouses, and visa waivers for humanitarian workers.

Dominican government disaster workers are responding guardedly to the expected influx of Haitian migrants - the two countries share a 78,000 sq km island and a 380km border that demarcates their bloody past and politically sensitive present, speckled with persistent allegations of racial discrimination against Haitians.

"We will be criticized if people see us as throwing out Haitians, but how can we absorb so many? There are thousands now in border hospitals. Will they want to leave? ... We cannot provide for all of them," the disaster relief director, Edwin Luciano, told IRIN in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, three days after the earthquake in Haiti.

"We are judged by our past actions and cannot get around that," said Luciano, who is also head of the government centre for emergency operations. He told IRIN that in his two decades of disaster relief work, the earthquake on 12 January was one of the most complex because of the socio-political sensitivities.

Past

In 1937 President Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of more than 15,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic, in a move to reinforce his rule.

In 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Dominican Republic's system of registration for citizenship was unconstitutional and violated the rights of two children who had been denied birth certificates. Without citizenship papers, the children were not allowed to go to school, as is the case for many Dominican children of Haitian descent, according to rights groups in both countries.

Persons of Haitian descent without residency papers in the Dominican Republic have periodically been repatriated en masse and by force, according to the Support Group for Refugees and Repatriated Persons (GARR), an umbrella body for Haitian NGOs and rights groups. An estimated 800,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent are living in the Dominican Republic.

Present

UN officials in both countries have said the Dominican Republic would be the primary logistics base for humanitarian operations in Haiti, given Haiti's single-landing strip airport, hobbled coordination capabilities and slowly recovering telephone system.

"The pressure is overwhelming in Haiti now. We are looking for every way to decrease pressure - that border between the two countries is a lifeline," UN logistics coordinator Andrew Stanhope told IRIN from Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

The first relief shipments have started arriving in Haiti under UN police escort from the airport in Barahona, a harbour on the south coast of the Dominican Republic, and the military base in San Isidro, 25km east of Santo Domingo.

A landing-craft operation will also be established in Barahona to transport aid to Jacmel, on the southern coast, Haiti's fourth-largest city, where there are more than 10,000 displaced people. The American shipping company, DHL, is soon to open a warehouse at the Las Americas airport in Santo Domingo for relief supplies.

The head of UN operations in Dominican Republic, Valerie Julliand, told IRIN: "In all my years of humanitarian work I have never seen a government and its citizens leap to action quite like this - anything the United Nations has requested has been accorded."

She said the Dominican response was unprecedented. "Visa waivers for transiting humanitarians? Done. Logistical support at military bases to warehouse supplies? Check. Equipped mobile soup kitchen? In place and staffed along the border. Cooperation to run a humanitarian corridor to get supplies into Haiti? Done."

When asked about the UN's plan for the expected influx of Haitian migrants seeking relief and medical care in the Dominican Republic, she said the UN would support the government's efforts to offer assistance to earthquake survivors.

Disaster relief director Luciano said that for how long, and how, the Dominican government could help was still under consideration. "We have to be very careful lest we risk criticism and condemnation."

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Aid Policy, (IRIN) Migration, (IRIN) Natural Disasters, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs

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Copyright © IRIN 2010
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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