Sunday, March 25, 2012

Between the earth and the sky: Invisible Millions

Every society has its invisible class.
In America that invisible class are the homeless. Hundreds of thousands of living reminders of "there but for the grace of God I go." A sub-class living among us that working people don't even like to acknowledge out of fear.

I used to think like that before I joined the Peace Corps. That's when I discovered that being homeless was not the worst thing that could happen to you. Not even close.

When the pirate problem of Somalia broke into America's consciences following the 2006 invasion by Ethiopia, people had trouble putting into context. It seemed like something straight out of a history book.

You can put slavery into that same historical context. It's something from a very different time. Every nation on Earth, at least every one with a working government, has outlawed slavery.
Yet, the slavery problem has never been worse.
Despite more than a dozen international conventions banning slavery in the past 150 years, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history.
There are between 12 and 27 million slaves in the world right now, depending on who is counting. Slavery is the 2nd-most profitable criminal enterprise in the world, after drug-trafficking. The average annual profits from a slave were $3,175 in 2007.
The majority of the slave trade exists in south Asia and Africa, although it extends to most of the nations of the world.

In the western hemisphere the problem is slavery is mostly unsubstantial - with one big exception: Haiti.
Poverty has forced at least 225,000 children in Haiti's cities into slavery as unpaid household servants, far more than previously thought, a report said Tuesday.
The Pan American Development Foundation's report also said some of those children — mostly young girls — suffer sexual, psychological and physical abuse while toiling in extreme hardship.
Young servants are known as "restavek" — Haitian Creole for "stays with" — and their plight is both widely known and a source of great shame in the Caribbean nation that was founded by a slave revolt more than 200 years ago.
That survey came before the 2010 earthquake, which almost certainly made things worse.

The plight of the Haitians is a very personal thing for me because I am living just 5 kilometers from the border of Haiti. Many of my students cross the Dominican border every week to attend my classes.
Doing this has certain risks.

The police and enlisted men in the Dominican military are extremely poorly paid. I've been told their average pay is around 5,000 pesos a month (about $140). It's nearly impossible to live on that.
Thus they supplement their incomes by shaking down Haitian immigrants for bribes.

Instead of fixing the situation by paying the police and soldiers a living wage, the government created a special unit of police just for the tourist areas, called Politur. These police are better trained and better paid, in the hopes that they will be less incline to shake down the tourists that the economy depends on.

On a recent trip through Dajabon, my bus was pulled over by soldiers and all the Haitians were yanked off the bus. The bribe for not having a visa was 100 pesos. The bribe for having proper documentation was 50 pesos.
I can testify to the humiliation and intimidation of getting pulled off a public bus at a military checkpoint, and I look nothing like a Haitian. Unlike Haitians, I could appeal to the American embassy.

The "Haitians" I am talking about may have never been to Haiti, nor consider themselves Haitian.
The only reason they are considered "Haitian" is because of a quirk in Dominican law.
For 75 years the Dominican Republic’s constitution granted citizenship to almost everyone born in the country. But since 2007 the government has sought to deny the citizenship of people whose parents were illegal migrants, a policy incorporated in an amended constitution in 2010. Up to 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian origin may be affected. Almost 500 of them have complained to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that they have been left stateless. The IACHR has condemned the new policy. But on December 1st the DR’s Supreme Court endorsed the new rule by rejecting a Dominican-born man’s request for a birth certificate.
[Being stateless is like being] "between the earth and the sky."
- Mohamed Alenezi, Bedouin from Kuwait.

Statelessness is a global problem effecting between 15 and 25 million people in the world.
These people live in a netherworld almost completely devoid of human rights and legal protections. In most cases, stateless people are invisible to societies.
"One of the big problems we have is that this simply is not recognised as being a major issue globally," said Mark Manly, head of the stateless unit at the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
"In the media there's very little discussion, in universities there's very little research and in the U.N., until relatively recently, there hasn't been a lot of discussion either, so the effect of all that is that we still have major gaps in our knowledge," Manly told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Statelessness exacerbates poverty, creates social tensions, breaks up families and destroys children's futures. In some cases it can even fuel wars when disenfranchised people pick up weapons, as has happened in Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The effects vary by country, but typically stateless people are barred from education, healthcare and formal employment. They often can't start a business, own property, hold a driving licence or open a bank account. They can't get married legally or travel abroad to work or visit family.
And they can't vote, which means they can't elect politicians who might be able to improve their lot...
Stateless people are vulnerable to exploitation, including slavery and prostitution, and risk arbitrary detention. Their lack of identity can make accessing legal help impossible -- no one knows how many stateless people are locked up worldwide.
Statelessness, along with extreme poverty, is a leading factor in the global slave trade.
Generally you never hear about stateless groups until people start getting killed.
The biggest stateless problem in the world is the Palestinians. While large stateless populations exist in Europe and Africa, most of these invisible populations live in Asia.

There is one major exception to this Asian-centered trend - Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
In the DR birth certificates are needed for such matters as buying a mobile phone, enrolling in school or getting married. Absurdly, they must have been issued no more than 90 days before; the state makes money by charging to renew them. People who had previously replaced their certificates many times were suddenly rejected.
Officials deny that these people are stateless, saying that as the children of Haitians they can apply for Haitian citizenship. But many no longer have any ties to the country of their parents’ birth.
“There’s an entire blackmail industry around the Haitian immigration in the country”
- Jose R. Taveras, Immigration Agency director

I was hardly surprised the other day when my Dominican neighbor told me that "Todos los haitianos son ladrones" (All Haitians are thieves). I've been repeatedly warned to stay away from Haitians neighborhoods.
Since I used to live in a San Francisco ghetto, I shook off the warnings as just racist slanders.
Then, during a visit to a Haitian mercado last week, I discovered that a pocket of my pants was slashed with a razor in the hopes of getting my cell phone to fall out. I thought that was a pretty bold thing to do.

To be fair to Dominicans, their country hardly has the resources to deal with its own people, much less the massive immigrations flows from Haiti.
The Dominican Republic is a "boat people" nation. In just the last three months there has been two tragedies from rickity boats full of desperate Dominicans fleeing to Puerto Rico sinking. Most Dominicans I've met do not know how to swim.

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