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While the conversation in 2011 was among advocates, NGO staff, and academics—all trying to understand what was going on, and to plan together a strategy to move forward—this week's conference incorporated important parts of the Dominican government. File photo: human rights meeting in the border town of Jimani, Dominican Republic. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) February 15, 2013 — After meeting with young people in the bateys near Buyaguana, I attended a two day conference here entitled "The Right to a Nationality and the Rule of Law in the Dominican Republic: Perspectives and Challenges.”

Throughout the first day, participants met in closed sessions with different configurations of affected persons, experts, and decision-makers. The next day, we all gathered together for a series of panels in which academics, advocates, lawyers, affected people and government officials discussed the many aspects of nationality in the Dominican Republic.

Through their presentations, and the rich discussions that followed, it became clear that Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent really face two barriers in accessing documentation, citizenship, and Dominican society in general. The first is a network of unjust laws, but the second is the even more discriminatory execution of those laws. 

For example, ever since the Constitution was reformed in 2010, the law says that anyone born of two undocumented persons within the Dominican Republic is not automatically granted citizenship. But in practice, young people with even one undocumented parent are having trouble accessing their documentation.

Similarly, in my earlier article, I wrote that there was no way for children born of undocumented mothers to be declared, because there was no way for men to register as single fathers. It turns out that, while the young people who told me this were speaking the truth of their lived experience, this is technically false. According to the law, both mothers and fathers can register their children. However, in practice, only mothers are allowed to register children and fathers are turned away. 

This gap between the actual law and the implementation of the law can also been seen the vulnerability of young undocumented women to gender-based violence, especially as domestic workers and sex workers. Of course, sexual violence against these women is illegal. But in practice, there are few consequences for those who perpetrate gender-based violence against undocumented women, be they Haitians or Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. 

Tahira Vargas, a social anthropologist, told the story of one of the young women she interviewed, who was raped by the son of her employers. When she told her mother what had happened, her mother told her that she had to stay quiet or else her employers would denounce her and she would be deported. As was related by others, this is likely true. Without protections that provide legal pathways for victims of crimes, undocumented women often must choose between denouncing their abusers and being deported to a country they’ve never known. 

While these realities are distressing, much about the conference was encouraging. In 2011, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA helped host a conference in Washington, D.C., focused on statelessness. The conference that I attended last week is, in many ways, the second chapter of the 2011 conference. Though the legal status of far too many young people remains unchanged, some progress is evident. 

While the conversation in 2011 was among advocates, NGO staff, and academics—all trying to understand what was going on, and to plan together a strategy to move forward—this conference incorporated important parts of the Dominican government. Included among the participants were Congress people, judges and two members of the Central Electoral Board, the controversial board that administers the civil registry and is at the epicenter of the documentation crisis. 

While there is still significant disagreement about what the problem is and how to solve it, the fact that decision-makers came face-to-face with affected people and said "yes, we must look for solutions" is a new step in the process of securing the right to a nationality for all Dominicans.   

By Mary Small, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy, currently in the Dominican Republic. Related stories from this trip: "Facing the Reality of Statelessness," can be read here and "Accompanying Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic” can be read here.

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