The first protected category of the United Nations Refugee Convention is race. The 1951 Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside their country of residence or nationality “because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Racism negatively affects the lives of Haitians at home and abroad. Yet Haitian migrants today are rarely considered eligible for asylum.
It requires us to think transnationally about racism and the treatment of refugees. Brazil-led UN peacekeeping operations and the outsourcing of US immigration control to Latin America further complicate asylum for Haitians.
Why is race so central to the UN Refugee Convention? Probably because many of them were drafted by former Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and their allies. The compilers added two important clauses.
The first one, Article 3, provides for non-discrimination by recipient countries (by “race, religion and country of origin”). The second is the principle of non-refoulement which prohibits countries from returning migrants to dangerous conditions at home.
Other considerations that determined the final scope of the convention include the disintegration of rich and rich countries’ continued racial barriers to immigration.
Haiti, colonialism and empires
Much of the racism against Haitians comes from abroad.
In the late 1700s, Haitian revolutionary French colonizers expelled and abolished slavery. A few years later, Haiti sought refuge for victims of slavery and colonialism elsewhere.
But France and other countries have demanded compensation for their lost “property”, which means people. Haiti had to pay this debt throughout the 20th century.
From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. military occupied Haiti, with lasting social and political consequences. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the slaughter of thousands of Haitians living near the border.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the US supported the Duvalier dictatorship. Since then, there has been almost continuous foreign intervention in Haiti’s politics.
With economic and political instability, many Haitians go abroad to improve life for themselves and their families at home. For Haitians, the lines between diaspora, economic migrant and refugee are often blurred. But legally, these categories can make the difference.
US sends Haitians back home
From 1981, the US adopted a policy of banning and processing Haitian migrants at sea. This effectively created a loophole and enabled them to circumvent the principle of non-refoulement and send Haitians back home.
Following this precedent, rich countries today have increasingly begun to place immigration on “remote control” – in other words, they control immigration from a distance, in international waters and third countries’ territories.
There is now a broader outsourcing of security and human rights, as Latin American countries have been placed in charge of receiving refugees and conducting UN peacekeeping missions.
Brazilians in Haiti, Haitians in Brazil
In 2004, the democratically elected Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide was fired for the second time, probably with the help of the US Canada, France, the US and other major players quickly recognized the regime that replaced him. Later that year, Haiti received a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH.
Until 2017, MINUSTAH’s multinational military force was run by Brazilian generals, with much interference from the US, Canada and France.
In order to depoliticize the situation, these generals were instructed to deal with the problem of “gangs” by force. Urban neighborhoods, where gangs presumably lived, were precisely the basis of Aristide’s political support.
In a book on the military commanders of MINUSTAH, these generals called the low-income neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince “favelas” or slums, suggesting that the problem was one of policing.
Another term they used pacification. This is not just a translation of peacekeeping. Historic, pacification was a euphemism for the colonization of indigenous peoples.
It is also a reference to the work of Rio de Janeiro’s police units called Unidades da Policia Pacificadora. There was an ongoing exchange of security management personnel, ideas and practices between Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro during that period.
After the massive 2010 earthquake that displaced hundreds of thousands of survivors, Brazilian authorities became concerned about Haitians arriving in their country.
My ongoing research with professors Martha Balaguera and Luis van Isschot at the University of Toronto examines how Haitian migrants are treated in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.
Brazilian immigration policy is determined by the Conselho Nacional de Imigração (CNIg). In CNIg’s minutes of the meeting, government officials cited Brazil’s “special relationship” with Haiti (the MINUSTAH operation) as a reason for accepting Haitian migrants.
However, they claim that Haitians are not refugees, as they migrated due to the earthquake. They do not recognize Brazil’s contribution to Haiti’s political and economic instability.
Brazilian officials express concern that Haitians will establish “a more permanent Haitian diaspora” in Brazil. This discourse is consistent with Brazil’s longer history of racially biased immigration policies that favored Europeans.
In response, Brazilian officials created a humanitarian visa specifically for Haitian migrants. It offers temporary legal status, but does not come with the same protection against deportation and government resources as asylum.
As the Brazilian economy deteriorated, many Haitians went north hoping to reach the United States or Canada. Many pass through Colombia, via the Darien Gap, a dangerous zone that connects Colombia with Central America.
Haitians travel north
In Colombia, Haitians join other migrants’ routes. This includes Colombians, many of African and indigenous descent, who have been displaced by land grabs by paramilitaries and local elites. Others are from Venezuela, Africa and Asia.
Further north, they join Central American migrants fleeing violence from the transnational war on drugs.
Read more: Trump and Biden ignore how the war on drugs incites violence in Latin America
Then they go to Mexico, where the US has outsourced the management of asylum seekers.
Many give up and stay in Tijuana.
In southern Mexico, a kind of open-air prison was created to accommodate refugees without the proper papers to go north. Those who reach the US are then detained, after which many are deported.
The 1951 Refugee Convention is designed to protect people fleeing conditions created by Nazi Germany’s genocidal anti-Jewish racism. But the refugee system fails to prevent the pervasive and often deadly forms of racism that Haitians face. This racism is transnational, and its origins are the countries of destination.