The new situation inside Dominican bateyes
Regarded as pariahs by native Dominicans because of deeply embedded prejudices, immigrant Haitian workers seek out a meager existence toiling for multi-national sugar, farming and construction corporations inside the Dominican Republic. Living in almost quasi isolation inside the bateyes, their families and children, numbering more than 200,000, do not have clinics, dispensaries or hospitals; lack access to basic health care and hygiene; and live amid squalor and disease. Over the years, however, the demographics of the bateyes have changed. The population’s racial make up that was composed mainly of Haitian migrants and their descendants now has been shown to be 70% Dominicans. Many batey residents still do not have legal papers to prove their citizenships making it extremely difficult for them to freely access public health or education services, employment or securing a bank account.
The bateyes, however, are not the only communities where human lives are at stake in the Dominican Republic. Inside Dominican’s urban slums or barrios where a great percentage of poor Haitians have also moved in recent years, Dominican children and their families face similar fate living in overcrowded shacks with limited access to nutrition, electricity, health care and basic hygiene. More than 2.5 million of the Dominican’s 8.9 million people do not have birth certificates. BRA strives to address those needs by supporting the work already being done by the local government and partner organizations. The desperate political, legal and social conditions of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are documented by local and international agencies. The situation in the bateyes can be described in one word — “deplorable.” A history of the problems faced by the migrant workers was summarized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, in its 1999 report titled “SITUATION OF HAITIAN MIGRANT WORKERS AND THEIR FAMILIES IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC.”
In 2001, the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA) sponsored an International Conference, the first of its kind, at the United Nations where Haitian as well as Dominican scholars and government representatives came to shed new light on the situation of the bateyes under the title, “The Dominican’s Bateyes: A New Reality.”
The Haitian migrant population is now in limbo, caught between the demise of the old sugar economy and the new tourist-driven economy that now buoys the Dominican Republic. The cruelest irony of all is that while it was bad enough under the old dispensation, it is worse still in an era of economic progress. The plantation system has fallen into neglect: sugar factories are in disrepair or shut down; the government’s attempt to privatize the plantations has not been successful. There are many bateyes, lost amid forests of wild cane, and where the people are starving for lack of work and health care.
According to a 1999 Dominican Republic’s State Sugar Council—CEA’s Bateyes Sugar Mills survey, done by the Reform Commission of the Public Firm (CREP), the bateyes lodge 43,154 families with around 200,000 habitants, representing 2% of the country’s total population. The CEA, which for the most part has owned and managed the bateyes, did the study on economic and health conditions. Titled “Socioeconomic and Health Survey of the CEA’s Bateyes Mother and Child Population,” it reported the following:
- The population is young: 29 percent of the population is under five years of age and 55 are under 15 years of age. Mothers in their reproductive years represent 21 percent of the population. This group is very stable; 97.5 percent of household members reside all year in their community. Of children less than 15 years old, 64 percent live with both parents and 13.3 percent do not live with either parent. Mean household size is 5.3.
- Only 6 percent reported Haitian birth and only 3.5 percent reported having a Haitian birth certificate. The great majority of present batey inhabitants are second generation Haitians or Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic.
- Language is the most important element in cultural identification, yet half of the population reported no knowledge of Kreyol, the native Haitian language. Forty-three percent can speak and understand Haitian Kreyol, with an additional 2 percent also capable of reading and writing it.
- 66 percent of mothers identified their nationality and that of their children as Dominican; 6 percent as Haitian; and 14 percent as Haitian-Dominican (the remainder were unavailable to identify their nationality).
Possession of Birth Certificates by Batey Residents
Batey residents without birth certificates
8% were born in Haiti while 92% were born in the Dominican Republic.
High rate of disease and the lack of health care
One particular subset of the batey population that is particularly affected by the poverty is the children. Infant mortality is very high due to the lack of prenatal care. Infants and children who survive often suffer from parasitic diseases and malnutrition. The latest statistics from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) study in the DR reveal that 38.4% of the children of less than 5 years old suffer of chronic malnutrition. As a consequence, a third of these children are moderately to severely growth retarded. Kwashiorkor, a disease rarely seen in the western world, is relatively common among the children of the bateyes, a consequence of lack of protein intake. Diarrheal illnesses are very prevalent and remain one of the main causes of morbidity and mortality in the pediatric population in the Dominican Republic. Diarrhea is a direct consequence of the lack of hygiene and latrines, running water. Diarrhea is most prevalent among the children of less than 2 years with a frequency of 40-45%. It is estimated at 29% among all children less than 5 years old. The unavailability of access to post natal medical care contributes to a great extent to the malnutrition observed in this population.
Infectious diseases are generally a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the pediatric population of the third world. Although immunizations have resulted in the eradication or the control of many infectious diseases in developed countries, routine pediatric immunizations have remained unattainable in the poor countries, in particular the Caribbean including the Dominican Republic. Thus, these countries remain under continuous threat of major epidemics of communicable diseases and a source for potential spread to the rest of the world; witnessed the recent cases of polio recorded in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Although the exact rate of immunization of the pediatric population in the bateyes is not known due to lack of specific studies aimed at establishing such statistics or inadequate record keeping, we estimate it to be no higher than 30%. Most of the children are not immunized against the common childhood illnesses such as Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Mumps, Measles or Rubella – even if they did, no records are kept making evaluation nearly impossible. Sanitation facilities are as minimal as can be allowed for human existence. Most bateyes don’t have latrines – and if they do, they are communal and rundown forcing the population to use the sugar cane fields for their physiological needs. There are almost no solid waste disposables. Under these conditions, many of the children fail to thrive due to infectious diseases controllable with appropriate shots.
Additionally, the children lack clothing and shoes to protect them against the elements. These children when they grow up are poorly educated and tend to leave the bateyes to look for a better life in the bigger cities, such as Santo Domingo, Santiago or Barahona. They often do not have families in the city and end up living on the streets fending for themselves by prostituting, shoe shining, begging or selling various crafts to tourists in order to make a living. This is a cycle that we, at BRA, believe can be broken by providing proper health care, education and training.
According to a UNAIDS report, Haiti and the Dominican Republic combined have the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the entire Caribbean region at more than 85% and second to sub-saharan Africa. The Dominican Repubic’s bateyes have a high rate at 5-13% as compared to the national average of only 1%. Yet batey-targetted health and HIV/AIDS prevention and education has been severely neglected.
While a great percentage of BRA’s work continues to be inside the bateyes, but in recent years, however, we have expanded our intervention to addressing basic needs of impoverished children and families languishing into urban communities and border regions of Haiti and Peru.
Facts obtained from the Batey Relief Alliance (BRA)’s first International Conference, entitled Dominican’s bateyes: A new reality, held at the United Nations on February 28th, 2001. Facts about the citizenship or legality of batey residents were obtained from USAID statistical reports.