‘Haiti is a country that’s drowning’: Migrants recount trauma of fleeing home

Thousands of people have fled Haiti’s capital in recent weeks as gangs continue to run riot in a country plunged into political chaos. More than 2,000 thousand kilometres from Port-au-Prince, a community centre in New York’s Rockland County is welcoming Haitians who have fled the violence. But while they have finally reached the safety of the US, they also bear traumatic memories. 

The Konbit Neg Lakay community centre is one of the first stops that many Haitian migrants make after arriving in New York. The centre’s name means “Together for a Stronger Community” in Creole and it’s a welcoming place for people who have just fled the unrest and gang violence wracking Haiti.

The mural on the centre’s exterior wall brings a splash of colour to the Spring Valley neighbourhood in New York’s Rockland County.

Mural on the wall of Konbit Neg Lakay Haitian Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York on 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

It depicts an idyllic scene of rural life in Haiti but the centre’s director Renold Julien experienced some tough times in the country of his birth.

He was an activist in Haiti during what has come to be called the Papa/Baby Doc dictatorship years. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was succeeded by son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, the Haitian regime became synonymous with torture and killings.

Julian left his homeland almost four decades ago for a new life in the US. He opened his community centre, to help other Haitians navigate their arrival in New York, 37 years ago.

The centre receives grants from foundations and NGOs but it struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands. For Julien, Konbit Neg Lakay is a work of devotion. 

Konbit Neg Lakay provides newly arrived Haitians with immigration and job services, professional training and language classes. “Everything that an immigrant needs, we have it here,” Julien explains. It struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands but for Julien: “It’s a privilege for me to help my brothers and sisters.”

‘We ran to escape from them’

Several Haitians migrants come through a US humanitarian programme but they need a sponsor, Julien explains. Others travel through Mexico and then claim asylum in the US.

A dozen new arrivals from Haiti walk through the centre’s doors every week – many have lost family members to the gang violence back home.

“It has been extremely busy here due to the situation in Haiti because thousands of Haitians have been forced to leave,” says Julien as he  introduces three women who need advice on how to get a job and other essential information.

One of them is a soft-spoken medical student who arrived in the US in November 2023. Kartika Sari Rene, 22, did not want to leave Haiti. She was in her third year of medical school, when her studies were cut short. 

“I was walking with some friends and then some kidnappers were passing by,” she says. “We ran to escape from them. We hid from them. It was really awful.”

Rene’s father was terrified for her safety and forced her to leave the country. She came to the US with her mother, sponsored by family members living in New York. She has started learning English and has obtained a certificate to work as a personal care aide. 

For now, her dream of becoming a pediatrician is on hold. “I love to help people. I can’t stand to see people suffer,” she explains. 

Her friends at medical school in Haiti have also had to pause their studies. It is too dangerous for them to leave their homes.

‘Long, difficult and uncomfortable journey’

Haitian beautician Josette Bienaise also had to flee the country after a traumatic experience. She was shopping in the market when armed gang members started shooting at vendors. “Pap, pap pap,” she says, recounting her experience that day. “I lay down on the ground terrified and prayed. I can still feel the fear in my body.”

In the Konbit Neg Lakay hallway, Jean Marc Mathurin leans against a wall as he recounts the arduous journey that he made to walk through these doors to safety.

“They killed my father,” he confides in a low voice. “He was leaving work at the airport, and they wanted to take his money. He said no, and they murdered him. Then they came and burnt our home. My mother suffered so much she became ill, her sickness killed her.” 

Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024.
Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

Mathurin finds a photo of his mother in a hospital bed on his phone and videos of his two young children and the three sisters he left behind in Haiti. He arrived in New York with nothing. He is claiming asylum in the US, but it will be many months before he can legally work here and start sending money back home to his loved ones.

Each time he eats, he thinks of his family going hungry. “People in Haiti sell their homes to make the journey here thinking they will arrive in the US with something but they spend every penny along the way, or thieves steal their money and they get here with nothing, if they even make it here. Some of them get sent back home,” he explains.

There were many times along his escape from Haiti when Mathurin thought he would not make it. He took a flight from Port-au-Prince to Nicaragua, where he travelled mainly on foot to Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico. “It was a long, difficult and uncomfortable journey.”

When he got to the Rio Grande, in Mexico, he thought it might be impossible to cross. He describes the buoys, erected by the local authorities to thwart migrants, anchored to the riverbed. The buoys have blades that cut you if you try to climb over them, he said.

Mathurin is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed. “There are those who know how to swim, and those who don’t,” he says. “In front of me were two men, a Venezuelan and a Haitian, and they drowned right in front of me.” 

It’s a trauma he likened to his ancestral land. “Haiti is a country that’s drowning. It’s a child without a mother or father. When you have a mum and dad, they tell you not to go out late, not to fall in with the wrong crowd. Haiti is an orphan.”

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Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign in bid to restore calm

Haiti’s unelected prime minister, Ariel Henry, will step down once a transition council and temporary replacement have been appointed, he said on Monday, after leading the Caribbean country since the 2021 assassination of its last president.

Armed gangs massively grew their wealth, influence and territory under his administration, prompting Henry to travel to Kenya in late February to secure its support for a United Nations-backed security mission to help police.

However, the conflict dramatically escalated in his absence and left the 74-year-old neurosurgeon stranded in the US territory of Puerto Rico while regional leaders called for a swift transition.

“The government that I am leading will resign immediately after the installation of (a transition) council,” Henry said in a video address. “I want to thank the Haitian people for the opportunity I had been granted.”

“I’m asking all Haitians to remain calm and do everything they can for peace and stability to come back as fast as possible,” he added.

‘Unclear’ if Haiti PM Ariel Henry will return after resignation

Videos distributed on Haitian social media appeared to show celebrations in the street, with people dancing to music in a party atmosphere and fireworks launched into the night sky.

A senior US official said Henry was free to remain in Puerto Rico or travel elsewhere, though security in Haiti would need to improve for him to feel comfortable returning home. The official said the resignation had been decided on Friday.

Presidential council

Henry is set to be replaced by a presidential council that will have two observers and seven voting members, including representatives from a number of coalitions, the private sector, civil society and one religious leader.

The council has been mandated to quickly appoint an interim prime minister; anyone who intends to run in Haiti’s next elections will not be able participate.

Read moreHow a lack of leadership allowed gangs to take over Haiti

Haiti has lacked elected representatives since early 2023 and its next elections will be the first since 2016. Henry, who many Haitians consider corrupt, had repeatedly postponed elections, saying security must first be restored.

Regional leaders met on Monday in nearby Jamaica to discuss the framework for a political transition, which the US had urged last week to be “expedited” as armed gangs sought to topple his government.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had earlier Monday said the council would be tasked with meeting the “immediate needs” of Haitians, enabling the security mission’s deployment and creating security conditions necessary for free elections.

Haiti declared a state of emergency early this month as clashes damaged communications and led to two prison breaks after Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier, a leader of an alliance of armed groups, said they would unite and overthrow Henry.

More mission funds

Henry’s resignation comes alongside regional talks over participation in an international force, which he had requested to help police fight the gangs, whose brutal turf wars have fueled a humanitarian crisis, cut off food supplies and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier Monday the United States would contribute an additional $100 million to this force and $33 million in humanitarian aid, bringing the US’ total pledge to the force to $300 million.

Read moreEmergency summit in Jamaica to address spiraling instability in Haiti

It was however unclear how long it will take the funding to be approved by lawmakers and transferred. A UN spokesperson said that as of Monday, less than $11 million had been deposited into the UN’s dedicated trust fund – with no new contributions since Haiti declared its state of emergency on March 3.

Mexico’s foreign minister added that the country had contributed an unspecified amount of funds, and called for more action to stem the trafficking of arms to Haiti.

The UN believes Haitian gangs have amassed large arsenals of weapons trafficked largely from the United States.

The United Nations estimates over 362,000 people have been internally displaced, half of whom are children, and thousands have been killed in the overall conflict, with widespread reports of rape, torture and ransom kidnappings since 2021.

‘A bloody revolution’

In Haiti, gang leader Cherizier has threatened to go after hotel owners hiding politicians or collaborating with Henry. He demanded that the country’s next leader be chosen by the people and live in Haiti, alongside their families.

Many influential Haitian political figures live abroad.

“We’re not in a peaceful revolution. We are making a bloody revolution in the country because this system is an apartheid system, a wicked system,” Cherizier said.

Residents in the capital saw heavy gunfire over the weekend as armed men downtown surrounded the National Palace on Friday night and by Sunday the United States airlifted staff from its embassy. On Monday, authorities extended a nightly curfew until Thursday.

Washington said it was looking to expedite the deployment of the planned security mission.

Henry first requested an international security force in 2022, but countries have been slow to offer support, with some raising doubts over the legitimacy of Henry’s unelected government amid widespread protests.

Many in Haitian communities and abroad are wary of international interventions after previous UN missions left behind a devastating cholera epidemic and sex abuse scandals, for which reparations were never made.

Mike Ballard, intelligence director at security firm Global Guardian, said if gangs take control of ports and airports, they would be in charge of humanitarian aid to the country, adding that he did not believe Kenyan forces would effectively police or maintain peace.

“Countries with actual stakes in the region will need to step up and help shore up security,” he said, pointing to the United States, neighboring Dominican Republic and other CARICOM members.


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How a lack of leadership allowed gangs to take over Haiti

Haiti has descended into a state of chaos and despair in recent years, with gangs seizing control of large swaths of the nation and imposing their rule through fear, violence and extortion. FRANCE 24 spoke to expert Rosa Freedman on what paved the way for gangs to take hold of the Caribbean nation.

Haiti is teetering on the brink of a full-blown civil conflict as organised gangs, wielding control over large swaths of the country, are mounting an offensive.

With a power vacuum left behind after democratically elected president Jovenel Mosie was assassinated in 2021, and with a beleaguered police force of only 10,000 officers to protect the country’s more than 11 million inhabitants, gangs are becoming ever more powerful.

Gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as “Barbecue”, launched a coordinated assault against acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry last week, threatening “civil war that will lead to genocide” if he does not step down. Cherizier last week claimed that his G9 and other rival gangs had revived a non-aggression pact called Viv Ansanm (“Living together” in Haitian Creole) to topple the interim government.

Gangs have targeted infrastructure in the country, including its main international airport, a police academy and an attack on two key prisons in its capital Port-au-Prince that allowed thousands of inmates to escape over the weekend and led the government to declare a state of emergency.

The UN Security Council has called the situation “critical” and fears of widespread violence are mounting. Despite plans for a Kenyan-led police mission to bring stability to the Caribbean nation being initially blocked by a Nairobi court, the two countries finally signed a ‘reciprocal agreement‘ last week. But Kenyan trooper boots have yet to touch Haitian soil.

Almost 4,000 people were killed and 3,000 kidnapped in gang-related violence in 2023, according to the UN.

Turmoil and gang-related violence in Haiti has deep roots, with economic and political instability intensified by the Moise’s assassination. His killing sent the country into a downward spiral to near failed-state status.

The majority of supreme court judges have left office and the last remaining 10 senators in Haiti’s parliament left the country in January 2023. Haiti has not held legislative elections since October 2019 and – with all local authorities’ mandates now expired – the question of whether the interim government will finally hold elections hangs over acting PM Henry’s political legitimacy.

But Haiti’s fragility is also a legacy of past hardships. Crippling “reparations” the country was forced to pay France after it gained independence in 1804 left the country’s economy in tatters, as did the enduring impact of the Duvalier dictatorship that lasted several decades. The devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed tens of thousands of Haitians also set the country back years in terms of economic development.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Professor Rosa Freedman, a professor of law and conflict at the University of Reading and a Haiti specialist, to understand how and why gangs are taking control.

Who are behind Haitian gangs and how did they come into power?

Rosa Freedman: There is a triangle in Haiti that is interconnected. The triangle is between the government, the elites and the gangs. Sometimes they work with one another and sometimes they appear to be working against one another.

The leader of the G9 gang who is known as “Barbecue” was a former police officer. There are questions as to whether or not he left the police force or was pushed out of it by the government. He is not only the leader of his own gang but of a coalition of gangs who advocate that they are trying to protect the people living in abject poverty, particularly in the slums but also in rural communities, from the elites and from the corrupt government. He is calling for Ariel Henry to resign.

At the same time, there are many other voices on the ground, particularly in civil society, who are also calling for Henry to resign. But they aren’t supporting this gang leader – who himself has committed grave atrocities – or members of his gang or allied gangs.

There is [speculation] as to whether or not the government, or international actors – or both – are arming some of these gangs to try and cause civil unrest to [help] depose Henry.

It is complex. You have to understand every bit of what is going on in Haiti to understand the role the gangs play. And within that, you have to understand the history of Haiti and the history of interference, particularly from the US but also from other countries.

Haiti was the first Black sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere. But because of the reparations it was forced to pay to France, Haiti was never allowed to really govern itself because it’s always been reliant on international intervention or on aid or other kind of charity.

The taking away of Haiti’s military –  the demobilisation of its armed forces –  also played a huge role. Haiti only [reestablished] a military in 2017. Before that there was a vacuum in which gangs could gain power very quickly. 

And when populist left-wing leaders like [former president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide were deposed by international actors […] it left a vacuum within the populist movement and it left a vacuum for the gangs to take power.

When Colombian mercenaries assassinated president Jovenel Moise [in 2021], Haiti went back to a situation where the corrupt elite have all the money and gangs are talking about populism while also fighting for power and money.

What is their end goal?

Freedman: Some of these gang members are doing it because they want revolution: They want to protect people from starvation, from corruption. They want to have free and fair elections. Others are doing it because they want power and they want money.

It is very difficult to be able to unpack and differentiate between the different reasons within each gang, let alone within each coalition.

For example, gangs broke into prisons to allow prisoners to escape. Many of those prisoners will be members of the gang. But at the same time, many prisoners were actually there in pre-trial detention, against their fundamental human rights, languishing in the most terrible conditions that go against all sorts of international standards for many years – without even a chance of having access to a fair trial.

The different motivations from different actors sometimes compete and sometimes are actually complementary.

There may be common goals: of having Henry resign and having a new government. But what that government looks like will look different to different gangs. Some may want to have gang leaders in power in some form of dictatorship, others may be wanting free and fair elections.

There is no way to know what each individual gang leader – or coalitions of gangs – truly want.

What could challenge the power of these gangs?

Freedman: The Kenyan-led intervention is not going to solve the problem of gangs. These are not people that speak the local languages. They don’t understand the Haitian context. They don’t understand the climate in which these gangs are operating or even the roads they’re walking down.

The best-case scenario that I see is that countries who are part of the Group of Friends of Haiti – so Canada, Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba … countries that know Haiti, that understand the context, the culture, the climate, that are allied with Haiti and that are regional neighbours – they go in and support the police, the military, the Haitian infrastructure, to bring this violence to an end.

The world has turned Haiti into a failed state by intervening constantly and preventing Haitians [from] coming up with Haitian solutions for Haitian problems, preventing Haitians from choosing who will rule over them.

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The Observers – Investigation: How a Haitian congregation tried to take down a gang

Issued on:

On August 26, an evangelical pastor and his followers attempted to attack a gang in the north of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, armed with sticks and machetes. The gang retaliated with firearms, killing at least 21 people. What exactly happened that day? Why did ordinary churchgoers go to confront an armed gang? The FRANCE 24 Observers team investigated in this special program: “Haiti: Faith against bullets”.

“We’re at war! We’re going to attack them!” On August 26, Marcorel Zidor, also known as Pastor Marco, rallied his followers at the Piscine de Bethesda evangelical church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This church has a significant platform with a Facebook following of more than 110,000 people. Pastor Marco’s aim was to confront the “Taliban” gang, led by an individual known as Jeff, operating in the Canaan district north of the capital.

Gangs hold sway over a major portion of Port-au-Prince, and the city’s residents bear the brunt of their violence, enduring massacres, rapes and kidnappings for ransom. At least 2,439 fatalities and 951 abductions were recorded between January 1 and August 15, according to the UN.

After mass on August 26, Pastor Marco and his congregation head for Canaan. Some are armed with sticks and machetes. On their way, they pass the police station in the Bon Repos district: it’s just one kilometre from Canaan, but the police let them continue on their way. 

Pastor Marco and his congregation walked from the Piscine de Bethesda evangelical church to the Canaan district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on August 26, 2023. © Observers

In Canaan, some of the congregation throw stones. The gang retaliates by shooting at them: it’s a bloodbath. Some people are also kidnapped by the gang, interrogated and then released.

At least 21 people killed by the gang

Neither authorities nor the church have released any official figures on the number of casualties. However, the FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to analyse footage and count the bodies visible in videos shot by the gang. We can confirm that at least 21 people were killed. But the death toll is likely to be higher, as some people are still missing.

Several potential reasons account for why regular churchgoers felt compelled to confront a heavily armed gang. Chief among them is what locals see as helplessness and inaction of the Haitian authorities when faced with these armed factions.

“We have a big security problem with the gangs. The government is not doing its job. It’s not taking responsibility. So private citizens are trying to do what the government should be doing,” notes Harold (not his real name), a member of the congregation.

This isn’t the first time that individuals have tried to take on the gangs directly. At the end of April, local residents began hunting down suspected gang members and killing them. We took a closer look at the “Bwa Kale” movement in a special episode of The Observers.

However, this is the first time that a pastor has called on his followers to attack a gang directly. Previously, some pastors had only encouraged individuals to defend themselves against such groups, despite the fact that religious individuals have also fallen victim to kidnappings.

‘He said: “Everyone who’s coming with us, pick up a pebble. It will protect you against the bullets”‘

We wanted to understand why the congregation would go up against a gang. So we took a closer look at Pastor Marco’s speech, where he told his church that God would protect them from the bullets. Aristilde Deslande, a Haitian journalist specialising in religion, explained:

Pastor Marco is in the category of pastors who are known as “prophets”. The same is true of the prophet Mackenson, for example. Their practices are a little different from those of other evangelical Christians in Haiti; they’re closer to vodou. For example, vodou preachers might give people pebbles to “resist bullets”. It’s like giving them an amulet. This is what happened on August 26, when Pastor Marco told his followers to use pebbles to protect themselves from bullets.

These prophets generally perform “miracles”. For example, there’s a video in which Pastor Marco tells his followers that if they want to speak English, all they have to do is put everything related to English on a USB key. He tells them that they then need to boil the key in water, and drink it, to speak English. Their miracles are usually fake…

Generally speaking, the people who follow these pastors have a very minimal level of education. So they can be easily manipulated. They trust these pastors, who have managed to procure a kind of leadership that is lacking at the state level, especially as many people are desperate, and cling to what they find.

In Haiti, the pastor’s initiative drew criticism, with some believing that he had acted irresponsibly, gambling with the lives of his followers. Others, like Harold, felt he deserved credit for having “tried”.

In the days following the massacre, the police opened an investigation at the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire “to establish the responsibilities of all those involved in this affair”. It also stated that it had not been notified of the march and that the demonstrators had “bypassed the security arrangements […] set up by the forces of law and order”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship announced the temporary closure of the church, but primarily to prevent reprisals against it by the victims’ families.

The pastor asserted that 95 percent of his congregation remained unaffected, contending that those who lost their lives had “lost their faith”.

We spoke to the pastor’s lawyer, Phizema Palvin, in mid-September. He told us that Pastor Marco said he would “continue on the same path, to oust the criminals”. A call for “revolution” is still up on the church’s Facebook page.

Palvin had promised that the pastor would grant our editorial team an interview, but in the end, he failed to show up.

“Revolisyon an kamanse” (“Let’s start the revolution” in English): this is the message visible on Pastor Marco’s church page. © Piscine de Bethesda.

Read moreHaiti: In the grip of the gangs

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Video: The ‘hunt’ for Haitian migrants continues in the Dominican Republic

A video of a young child hanging from the arms of a detained Haitian woman through the barred door of an immigration control truck in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, was published in early June. The country’s migration director later dismissed the agent seen in the video. According to human rights groups, Haitians regularly face violent and arbitrary arrests. Every month, thousands of them are deported, despite calls from the UN to halt these forced removals.

Issued on:

4 min

In early June, videos taken in the Dominican Republic’s capital Santo Domingo began circulating on Twitter. They show a young child hanging from the arms of a detained woman through the barred door of an immigration control truck, while an immigration agent simply watches. The vehicle then drives off.

Vidéo tournée à Saint-Domingue, en République dominicaine, début juin.

On social media, some said they believed the incident was an “isolated case”. Others made racist comments towards Haitians in the Dominican Republic. But many Internet users were also shocked by the disturbing scene.

Another video filmed in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, in early June, showing the same incident.

In the face of criticism, the Dominican Republic’s migration director said that the immigration agent seen in the video had been dismissed, pointing to a “lack of tact” and “arbitrary behaviour” on his part.

The migration department also told the Observers team that the child in the video was returned to his mother “less than 23 metres away from the place where the video was taken”, and that the woman, “who has irregular status”, had not been deported to Haiti, “for humanitarian reasons”.

“The whole team should have been punished”

Manuel Maria Mercedes, from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH-RD), a Dominican NGO, told us that more should have been done.

The decision to fire the immigration agent was taken to give them a good image, both nationally and internationally, because the scene shocked people. But this agent was not alone: the whole team with him should have been punished. What’s more, according to our information, the woman and her child were sent back to Haiti.

Thousands of Haitians deported every month, against UN advice

Around half a million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, but many of them are undocumented or have irregular status.

Every month, thousands of Haitians are deported. Between 12 and 19 June, 4,973 Haitians were deported from the Dominican Republic, despite the calls of the UN to halt these forced removals because of the security, humanitarian, political and economic crisis in Haiti (watch our report “Haiti: In the grip of the gangs” below).

“Haïti: In the grip of the gangs”, an investigation by the FRANCE 24 Observers. © Observers

Human rights groups such as CNDH-RD have also criticised the violent and arbitrary nature of the arrests, as they don’t only affect people in irregular situations.

“Sometimes, people are arrested simply because they’re black”

When migration officers arrive at the places where Haitians live, they stand on street corners and arrest everyone who passes by, regardless of their status, sometimes just because they have black skin. Then they take them to centres, and they are deported from there. Sometimes they arrest mothers without giving them time to look for their children. This has meant that more than 500 children are alone in the Dominican Republic, without their parents.

Concerning deportations, the government has launched a witch-hunt, disregarding international agreements, the Constitution and the law on migration. We are not opposed to deportations, but they must be carried out in accordance with the rule of law.


malgre dam nan endispoze neg pa bal regle anyen pou yo nn kettt mesye Dirijan yo di on bgy pou peyi a nn mesye 🥺🥺🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

♬ son original – IMIGRAN HAITI RD

Video showing a woman being put into a van by immigration agents. It seems that she had lost consciousness before.

“This situation can be partly explained by the anti-Haitian discourse in the Dominican Republic”

Edwin Paraison, the Executive Director of the Zile Foundation, another Dominican organisation, has similar views.

Recently, we saw a man being manhandled and thrown into a van [see video below]: a priori, he was just a tourist. [Our editors were unable to verify this information from an independent source.]

Haitians living in Canada or the United States are frequently arrested when they travel to the Dominican Republic as tourists. Many no longer travel to Haiti because of the crisis, and so they travel to the Dominican Republic to see their relatives who have stayed behind. At the end of 2022, the American embassy issued a warning to African-American citizens about arrests based on their skin colour.

In 2021, there was also a scandal involving pregnant Haitian women who were arrested in hospitals and deported.

Communiqué From The Haitian Embassy In The Dominican Republic In 2021, Concerning Pregnant Women Sent Back To Haiti.

For over a year now, the police and military have also been involved in migration operations. This is problematic because they are not trained to deal with these matters… In addition to unjustified jostling and beatings, Haitians told us that soldiers had also stolen money and mobile phones when entering their homes.

Another problem is that migration officers sometimes demand money from arrested Haitians to free them, between 2,000 and 2,500 pesos [between 32 and 40 euros], inside the lorries.

In my opinion, this situation can be partly explained by the existence of an anti-Haitian discourse in the country among certain politicians, even though Haitian labour is vital in the agro-industry, construction, etc. For example, some people think that Haitians will end up outnumbering Dominicans. This view has gained ground in recent years and is putting the government under pressure, preventing it from managing the migration issue in a pragmatic and supportive way.

The Dominican Republic has already been seriously criticised on the international stage in the past. In 1937, for example, there was a massacre of Haitians. [More than 20,000 of them were killed after the Dominican president decided to eliminate those working on the country’s plantations.] Another example: in 2013, the Constitutional Court decided to withdraw Dominican nationality from people born between 1929 and 2013 to foreign parents.

Meanwhile, the Dominican government has said each country’s migration policy should be “the responsibility of each government” and that it does not want to be the “solution” to all of “Haiti’s problems”.

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How Timberland, Vans, VF Corp. are making sure their cotton isn’t ‘greenwashed’

Smallholder Farmers Alliance purchase of organic cotton from farmer member.

Norielle Thomas, Smallholder Farmers Alliance

As the harvest season finished at the end of January in Haiti, retail giant VF Corp. made a notable purchase: what is believed to be the first-ever verified regenerative cotton crop grown in the country. 

For the holding company behind brands like Timberland, The North Face, Supreme and Vans, the purchase was significant. For one, it signaled a broader approach to sustainable farming, evolving from an earlier focus on organic cotton — where the emphasis is on the elimination of inputs including pesticides and synthetic fertilizers — to regenerative cotton agriculture practices, which place greater importance on soil health, water retention, and local economic benefits, in addition to the chemical input management.

Timberland had already reintroduced cotton to Haiti following a 30-year absence from the country in collaboration with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a nonprofit that establishes farmer cooperatives. After five years of study and field experiments, the company introduced its first products made with Haitian-grown organic cotton in the spring of 2021, including two types of sneakers and a tote bag. But the focus quickly moved to regenerative agriculture, a practice more activist shareholders are pressing with big consumer companies. 

“Regenerative agriculture is really important to Timberland and VF because it’s about restoring the soil,” said Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland’s director of social impact and activation. “We feel like it’s a way to directly address climate change. I think a lot of brands talk about sustainability, and we do as well, but if you think about sustainability, it’s really about doing no harm and maintaining things as they are. And regenerative is really drawing a line that’s higher.”

Behind the scenes, there is another notable aspect to the agricultural first related to technology. With support for Timberland, VF Corp. and VF Foundation, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance worked with Terra Genesis — a Thailand-based firm that VF just announced this week it has a collaboration with on sourcing regenerative rubber — and the Data Economics Company to create a farm data tracking service to verify regenerative cotton crops.

When a farmer decides to work with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a local agronomist will start coming to their farm and collecting data on regenerative farming, as well as establishing the standards that these farms must meet. If a farm passes the survey, farmers profit not only from the cotton sale, but from the data that verifies the cotton is regenerative.

VF Corp’s efforts with regenerative cotton in Haiti come at a time of growing pressure from consumers for companies to adopt more sustainable practices.

Three out of five consumers in a recent survey claimed that at least half of their last purchase consisted of socially responsible or sustainable products, according to the IBM Institute for Business Value

“This consumer demand drives the brands and big companies to want to use more of these products produced in that way,” said Jennifer Hinkel, managing director and CGO of the Data Economics Company.

Consumer brands facing greater ‘greenwashing’ scrutiny

But corporate sustainability claims are being more aggressively challenged by regulators and politicians.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission charged Kohl’s and Walmart with falsely advertising their rayon products as bamboo since 2015, with the companies agreeing to pay $5.5 million in combined penalties.

The FTC is weighing even stiffer penalties for “greenwashing” and is currently contemplating a revised set of rules for environmental marketing claims, with a public comment period set to end later this month.

“If there’s no traceability, there’s no evidence that it is what you say it is,” said Patricia Jurewicz, founder and CEO of the human rights nonprofit organization Responsible Sourcing Network. “People want to know. You don’t want to be saying that there’s better cotton in this product, if in reality, there’s cotton in there that could be contributing to forced labor or other harmful practices,” she added.

This data collection process also gives smallholder farmers a greater say in their relationship with big brands, shifting the balance of power a little in an industry that long favored the consumer companies, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, especially with food crops. The Rockefeller Foundation is currently looking at similar regenerative verification for food agriculture around the world.

The way that the data is collected and packaged is designed to give ownership to the farmer for licensing. “You don’t actually get ownership of the data as VF or a customer. You get to license it and use it for specific purposes,” said Data Economics Company managing director and CTO Arka Ray. 

Data Economics Company serves as the operating system for the entity managing the effort for farmers, Smallholder Data Services, and the farm level data traceability all the way through to the end purchasers, such as VF, and traceability back to compensating the farmers. Empowering small farms in direct connection with larger brands and markets, will be important to bringing sustainability through to the consumer end market, Hinkel said. 

Taking regenerative agriculture global will be a challenge

Applying this approach to the cotton industry and associated products will be complicated. Most cotton is blended with other cotton crops based on characteristics of the cotton, including color, strength, length, and price point, “and what’s realistic for some of the fast fashion that’s out there,” Jurewicz said. “What’s harder is applying these technologies to conventional cotton, to all the cotton that’s out there, rather than just to the real responsible cotton,” she said.

Even with progress made in recent years on organic cotton production, it’s still a tiny piece of the global industry. The 2020/21 global harvest of certified organic cotton was up 37% year over year, according to the Textile Exchange, but that represents 1.4% of all cotton grown globally. And Haiti, in particular, plays a very small role in global production, having only reinitiated cotton farming in recent years. The top five cotton-producing nations — India, China, the U.S., Brazil and Pakistan — control 77% of the global output, according to OECD data.

Nevertheless, while regenerative agriculture may be an emerging concept in developed markets like the United States and Europe, it isn’t new to Haitian farmers.

“When it’s introduced to smallholder farmers, we don’t really say, ‘Oh, here’s a new thing called regenerative’ because they recognize each of the practices of regenerative agriculture as things they’ve done in the past, things their parents did,” said Hugh Locke, senior editor president and co-founder of Smallholder Farmers Alliance and Smallholder Data Services.

VF Corp. was introduced to Haiti through Timberland, which started its efforts in the country in 2010 when the footwear company became the founding corporate sponsor for the Smallholder Farmers Alliance. Originally, Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance worked together on a tree planting operation under which smallholders were rewarded with credits for helping to reach the goal of planting 5 million trees, and they could then use those credits in exchange for seed, tools, training and other agricultural services.

McIlwraith says that Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance saw unexpected benefits from that program back on the farm, producing a 40% increase in smallholder farmers’ organic crop yields and 50% to 100% increases in farmers’ incomes.

“Haiti is so degraded, environmentally talking, and because of that any other project cannot be sustainable. So, we tackle the problem from its roots, which is environmental degradation in the country,” said Timote Georges, executive director and co-founder of Smallholder Farmers Alliance.

Tracking and verifying this data has encouraged more farmers to switch to regenerative cotton farming.

“There is a positive community kind of peer pressure that emerges and encourages farms to participate in this data network. … And which then by osmosis gets more and more farms to adopt regenerative practices because the ROI loop is very clear,” Ray said.

As brands create stricter goals tied to production practices, they will need to be able to demonstrate that they’re meeting them. “So I think all of that together, it will continue to incentivize this type of data tracking traceability,” Jurewicz said.

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