BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Juliana Deguis was born in the Dominican Republic and has lived in the Caribbean country her entire life. It is the only home she has ever known.
But she can’t vote, get legally married, travel abroad, get a formal job, open a bank account, own property or file a police report.
These are just some of the ways her life and basic rights are affected because Deguis is stateless - a person who is not recognised as a citizen by any country in the world.
Over the past decade the Dominican government has made several changes to the country’s citizenship laws. Rights groups say these have denied Dominicans of Haitian descent, like Deguis, their identity documents and stripped them of their nationality, leaving an estimated 200,000 or more stateless.
“I’m Dominican. I feel Dominican. I was born and raised here and so were all of my four children. I’ve never even left the country. But the government doesn’t recognise me as a citizen. It hurts not having a nationality,” said 30-year-old Deguis.
“This is my home but I’m a nobody in my own country,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from the capital Santo Domingo.
Last September, Dominican Republic’s top court passed a ruling revoking the citizenship of those born in the country to foreign migrants who did not have a legal residence permit on the grounds their parents were considered to be seasonal workers “in transit”.
The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and the decision affects mainly Dominican-born people of Haitian descent.
The ruling applies to people who were officially registered as Dominicans as far back as 1929 and in many cases it will affect their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The decision by the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic, along with previous changes to nationality laws, could affect up to 220,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent born and raised in the country, according to Deguis’ lawyer.
The Dominican government has said changes to the nationality laws are about tackling decades of illegal migration and are not aimed at removing citizenship.
Like most stateless people in the Dominican Republic, Deguis is the child of Haitian migrants who crossed the border to escape political violence or seek a better life.
Many ended up working as sugarcane cutters providing the country with cheap labour, settling in impoverished and isolated communities known as bateyes.
Hopes were raised among Dominicans of Haitian descent in February this year when the government of Danilo Medina announced it would propose a new draft bill on citizenship and submit it to the country’s congress to find a solution for those whose nationality had been revoked following the September ruling.
Last month, the United Nations refugee agency reiterated its call for the Dominican authorities to restore the nationality of Dominicans of Haitian descent who were rendered stateless by the court’s decision.
But they are still waiting for the proposed bill and, with no solution in sight, remain stuck in a legal limbo, facing an uncertain future on the margins of society.
Meanwhile, deportations of undocumented Dominicans of Haitian descent continue, though at a slower pace than in previous years, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
When Deguis turned 18, she applied like all citizens do, to get a national identity card. But despite having a birth certificate proving she was born in the Dominican Republic she was denied an identity card in 2004 and has been fighting ever since to be issued one.
“It’s difficult to do anything without an ID card. I don’t have the right to work. No-one will give you a formal job and a decent wage without one. Because I’m not working, my children suffer as a result,” said the soft-spoken Deguis.
Without an identity card, Deguis was unable to register the births of her four children at hospitals in the country, which means in turn they are not recognised as citizens by the Dominican authorities and are stateless too.
Deguis worries that her children could be kicked out of school at any time because they need to show their birth certificates to be officially enrolled at school.
“Almost every month the school asks me for the girl’s birth certificates so they can continue studying. I keep having to ask them to wait so I can sort out the paperwork. I don’t know for how long more the school will wait. I’m at their mercy,” said Deguis.
Local lawyers working with international rights groups have taken the case of Deguis and 79 other Dominicans of Haitian descent, including 32 children, to the Washington-based IACHR rights commission to prevent their deportation and put pressure on the Dominican authorities to issue with them with national identity cards.
The U.S-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, one of several rights groups behind the appeal to the commission, has described the plight of stateless people in the country as a ‘xenophobic denationalisation campaign’ against Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Last year, the commission ruled in favour of Deguis and other stateless people in the case. But they have not been granted Dominican nationality, their lawyers say.
“The commission handed down a precautionary measure against the Dominican Republic, saying the country is legally obliged to respect their right to nationality. But the government hasn’t acted upon the commission’s ruling. Juliana and others still haven’t been issued their identity cards,” said Manuel de Jesus Dandre, one of Deguis’ lawyers, who works with the rights group Socio-Cultural Movement for Haitian Workers (MOSCTHA).
“We’ll continue the fight. The next step is to go to the highest court,” he said, referring to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, the top human rights court for the Americas.
Dandre is also the child of Haitian migrants. He does have an identity card but he fears he might not have it for much longer. The government has recently required all citizens in the Dominican Republic to get new identity cards with updated security features.
“There’s no doubt I and others will have problems when we go to renew our identity cards soon. I expect the authorities will deny me a new one as I’m representing those people who are fighting against the state,” Dandre told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Santo Domingo.
“I could lose my job. I need an identity card to present before a judge when working in court. How will I look after my family if I don’t get one? My life could be put on hold - as we say here a civil death.”
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