As the United States stepped up Haitian repatriation in recent weeks, several Latin American and Caribbean countries with significant Haitian populations have also been sending Haitians back home, according to multiple migration organizations. Cuba, Mexico and the Bahamas, which say they have seen a surge of Haitians, are among the countries sending back the largest numbers.
In total, an estimated 8,935 Haitians have been returned from countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region since Sept. 19. Among them are children and unaccompanied minors, according to UNICEF, the United Nations division that aims to protect children worldwide.
The returns — a mix of both repatriations and deportations — are sure to create additional stress on a country already dealing with multiple social, economic and political crises. Turmoil exacerbated by the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, an earthquake in August that impacted about 800,000 people in the southwest region and ongoing gang activity that has left hundreds dead and 20,000 displaced in the Port-au-Prince area alone.
“The situation is very dire in Haiti right now. There are multiple crises, areas controlled by the gangs, three departments are affected by the earthquake, the political instability, and the population is only vaccinated around one or two percent against COVID-19,” said Giuseppe Laprete, chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission in Haiti. “This is the kind of situation they find when they arrive.”
UNICEF is coordinating with Haiti’s child protection agency IBESR to welcome children at the airport and ensure they have stable housing upon their return to Haiti, said Susanna Baldo, UNICEF chief of child protection in Haiti.
“Funds are very limited for us, especially for IBESR,” said Baldo, who is based in Port-au-Prince. “We’re supporting them, and it’s functioning as much, but of course [the system] cannot take care of all the caseload, if we imagine all the different situations that are evolving.”
UNICEF has reported that about 19% of the more than 7,600 people expelled from the U.S. have been children.
For a country reeling from multiple tragedies earlier this year, including longstanding political instability, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and a devastaing earthquake, the deportations have raised widespread concern whether Haiti is prepared to accept an influx of people.
As images of border patrol agents brutally chasing Haitian asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border gained international outcry, the greater question of how Haitians have been persecuted in countries across the Northern and Southern hemispheres has been raised.
Since Sept. 19, the U.S. has chartered more than 50 planes to Haiti, carrying a total of 5,400 asylum seekers, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.
Less than two weeks later, 150 Haitians were sent back from Mexico, an estimated 500 from Cuba, and 1,000 from The Bahamas were deported. In the neighboring Dominican Republic, 80 Haitians were sent back to Haiti on Sept. 20, according to Amnesty International. In total, 7,285 Haitians have been sent back from the DR.
Mexican authorities sent a plane of 70 Haitians back to Port-au-Prince on Sept. 29 in what they described as an “assisted voluntary return.”
The American Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, released a statement this week, saying that the U.S. and Mexico need to work together when it comes to the issue of Haitian asylum seekers, adding that “It’s a significant issue for the Western Hemisphere.”
Mexico continued deportations last week, sending 130 Haitians back to Port-au-Prince from the southern city of Tapachula on the Guatemala border.
The Darien Gap, a dense, lawless jungle that runs through Colombia and Panama, is the most common route for Haitians heading north to the U.S. It is known to be one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, and travelers are often the victims of robbery, assault and rape. It has been reported that more than 50 migrants have died making the trek this year.
Experts said that the deportations from Mexico are not surprising, considering relations between the U.S. and its southern neighbor.
“Mexico and the U.S. have kind of a history collaborating on migration issues and the Mexican government is not usually transparent in how they’re managing that,” said Robert Irwin, deputy director of the Global Migration Center at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not a stretch to imagine that the deportations of Haitians are kind of in line with what’s happening in the U.S.”
Earlier this month, the Panamanian government announced that an estimated 60,000 Haitians are heading to the U.S. border. Once they reach Mexico, however, they will likely be greeted by a military presence, as has been the case when other big caravans have attempted to enter the country, Irwin said.
He does believe that both Mexico and the U.S. are choosing to selectively deport people to send a message deterring future asylum seekers. Although there have been thousands of people sent back to Haiti from both countries, some asylum seekers have been allowed to stay. The criteria for who is allowed to stay and who is sent back remains murky, despite the Biden administration’s use of Title 42 to justify deportations.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement in late September, saying that Haitians have been arriving by boat to the country since early September.
“For several weeks, the flow of Haitian migrants in our region has increased, intending to reach the United States,” it said.
Four hundred and twenty-one Haitians who arrived in Cuba via two boats on Oct. 9 were sent back after negotiations between the two governments.
The following day, Cuba sent seven flights of Haitians back to Port-au-Prince, including 170 children. In addition to one flight sent from the U.S., a total of 1,069 people were sent back to Haiti on Oct. 10, 34% of whom were women and children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 80% of the children deported were under five years old.
About 1,000 Haitians were intercepted in late September by the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, which began sending patrol vessels to the southeastern part of the country where the boats were heading.
The Bahamian government began deporting Haitians on Sept. 30, releasing a statement via Facebook saying that the Royal Bahamas Defense Force “has maintained a vigilant watch with patrol vessels that have been deployed to the southeast Bahamas to strengthen the Force’s posture against the migrant surge.”
Irwin said it is unclear why other Caribbean countries have initiated deportations of Haitians.
“The cases of Cuba and the Bahamas are kind of puzzling because there is no kind of history of collaboration with the U.S. in trying to deter migration through these countries,” he said. “Maybe there were calls made that we don’t know about or whether other countries are kind of just seeing what the U.S. is doing and whether they can deport people that the U.S. is not ready to accept.”
Other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean came together and issued a joint statement urging the world to address the Haitian migrant crisis during the week of the United Nations General Assembly in late September.
The presidents of Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic called on the U.N., the U.S. and the European Union to “immediately structure specific, comprehensive and sustainable solutions within a framework of respect for dignity and human rights in order to address the alarming situation in Haiti.”
For those who are allowed to stay in Mexico, Irwin said sentiments toward Haitians from locals have been generally positive, as opposed to the government’s stance.
“When thousands of Haitians settled in Tijuana in 2016, everyone was shocked because they had never seen Caribbean migrants,” Irwin said. “They are seen as peaceful people ready to contribute and I think they will continue to be welcome there, which is so different from the way Haitians are received just about anywhere else in the world.”
Sam Bojarski contributed reporting.