The Dominican Republic was among the nations that adopted the New York Declaration at the United Nations General Assembly last month, which included a commitment to “provide quality primary and secondary education in safe learning environments for all refugee children.”
However, to meet this commitment, the Dominican government must first guarantee education to the tens of thousands of stateless Dominican children of Haitian descent in the country.
At the start of the school year this August, many families of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic had to face the reality that their children are once again unable to enroll in public schools due to lack of documentation.
Since the early 1990s, children of Haitian immigrants born on Dominican territory have encountered difficulties and obstacles in registering their births in the Dominican civil registry, and consequently obtaining the papers that prove they are Dominican nationals.
The Dominican Republic has a mixed system for the acquisition of citizenship – both by descent and by birth in the country. However, some limitations to obtaining birthright citizenship have been redefined over the past decades.
Dominican authorities routinely deny children of Haitian descent citizenship using the constitutional principle that children born to foreigners “in transit” do not qualify for citizenship, despite being born in the country.
Immigration laws up until 2004 defined a foreigner “in transit” as someone transiting through Dominican territory while traveling abroad for a period of 10 days. It was not originally intended to apply to migrants who have lived in the country for 20, 30, even 40 years.
However, a 2004 immigration reform bill redefined the meaning of “in transit” as applying to any irregular migrant, and in 2010 a constitutional amendment explicitly barred giving the future children of irregular migrants Dominican nationality.
Then in 2013, a constitutional court ruling retroactively revoked the Dominican citizenship of people born in the country to irregular migrants since 1929. The decision stripped hundreds of thousands of Dominican-born children of undocumented parents (most of them of Haitian descent) of their right to nationality.
As the Dominican government grappled with the momentous consequences of the decision in early 2014, we traveled to the Dominican Republic to investigate the impact of statelessness on children.
The 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, leading to violations of their human rights, including the right to education.
The report highlighted problems faced by over 10 million stateless people around the world. Stateless people are denied the right to nationality in violation of international law, and are exposed to many of the same rights violations as refugees, all the while facing additional vulnerabilities because they lack status and cannot rely on any nation for protection.
Unable to go to school, access healthcare, or work, stateless populations find themselves exposed to abuses without ever crossing an international border.
“My future has been destroyed … I had a vision that by 20 I would finish high school, go to college and earn a degree by 25,” said Juan, a young Dominican-born man denied nationality documents who we interviewed in 2014. “Now I am 25 and I have not even begun.”
Later in 2014, the Dominican Republic adopted a new citizenship law that purported to restore the nationality of tens of thousands of people affected by the constitutional court decision.
The new law created two processes for children with undocumented parents: Those with registered births could have their nationality restored if their birth certificates were validated, while those with unregistered births were given a pathway to citizenship through naturalization.
These are very complex processes, and civil society organizations say their implementation has been irregular, delayed and arbitrary.
Meanwhile, thousands are left in legal limbo and have trouble accessing education, healthcare and decent employment, and face difficulties getting married. They are also at risk of being deported to Haiti, after Dominican authorities ended a moratorium on deportations in 2015.
By the end of 2015, the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which has a mandate to protect the rights of stateless people, estimated there were 133,770 stateless persons in the Dominican Republic.
This month, three years after the constitutional court ruling, our legal paper found that children of Haitian descent still face significant obstacles getting access to an education.
While the 2014 citizenship law provided a route to nationality, many children of Haitian descent still struggle to obtain the documentation necessary to enroll in school.
Even when children obtain documents under the law, school administrators are often unfamiliar with this new documentation and are unable or unwilling to enroll these children.
All children in the Dominican Republic – regardless of documentation – have a right to education under both domestic and international law.
Global efforts to guarantee access to education for refugee children should not forget stateless children such as those in the Dominican Republic – children who have been excluded from their own nation without ever leaving it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.