Nairobi - With eight natural disasters in Haiti since 1994, January’s earthquake is likely to see hundreds of thousands more Haitians emigrate, not only to escape the impact of the latest disaster but also to avoid the next one - as well as political strife and poverty - according to IRIN.
The cost of rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake on 12 January, which killed 217,000 people and displaced 511,405, could reach US$14 billion, according to a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank.
An exodus of Haitians fleeing legally or otherwise has begun; in addition, there are more than 500,000 internally displaced, according to the UN.
Mark Turner, an official of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Haiti, said: “Large numbers of Haitians migrated abroad in the past 10 years but we knew that the diaspora will grow faster after January’s earthquake.”
According to Kathleen Newland and Elizabeth Grieco of the Migration Policy Institute, the principal destinations are the US and Dominican Republic. Others historically include Guadeloupe, France, French Guyana, the Bahamas and Martinique.
Statistics compiled by the World Bank in 2009 show about a million Haitians were living overseas in 2009, about half of them in the US.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a few days after the January earthquake, foreign governments started tightening border controls and putting in place more secure procedures in anticipation of the expected influx from Port-au-Prince.
Media reports say a million Haitians were living in the neighbouring Dominican Republic before 12 January. After the earthquake, the country suspended repatriation of illegal Haitians and opened its borders to let in the injured. The country also processed documents for Haitians seeking to legalize their stay so they could visit family in Haiti.
Media reports estimate that 30,000-50,000 Haitians could have entered Dominican territory in the past month, including 15,000-20,000 injured.
Strength of remittances
World Bank economists say that allowing a larger number of Haitians to reside abroad would actually help the nation’s economic development as a strong diaspora would send remittances home while decreasing domestic pressures on the Haitian government.
According to Dilip Ratha, lead economist at the World Bank, Haiti receives $1.5-$1.8 billion in remittances each year. With a 20 percent increase in the average remittance per migrant, another 200,000 migrants could remit an extra $360 million in 2010.
According to the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the US hosted 535,000 migrants from Haiti in 2008, of whom only 230,000 were lawful permanent residents.
The survey indicated that in 2008, Haitians comprised the fourth-largest immigrant group (in the US) from the Caribbean, after Cuba (975,000), the Dominican Republic (771,910) and Jamaica (636,589).
Special measures in the US
On 15 January, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that Haitian nationals residing in the US before 12 January could apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Another 200,000 Haitians immigrants are expected.
So far, TPS is granted to qualifying citizens of Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Sudan.
Haitians applying for TPS would receive a work permit for 18 months, on the basis that their personal safety would be endangered by returning to Port-au-Prince.
According to the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of 12 February, 12,000 Haitians had applied for TPS status. Another 50,000 have been approved to reunite with family in the US but are in Haiti awaiting a visa.
Although there are no official figures for the total number of people who have fled Haiti since January, in the past 10 days alone, the US Coast Guard is reported to have stopped two large boats with 78 and 88 Haitians respectively.
The two groups were immediately repatriated to Cap Haitien, amid international criticism because of a lack of asylum screening. This led to an appeal by UNHCR on 12 February, urging governments to suspend all involuntary returns and grant interim protection to Haitians regardless of their legal status on the basis of the emergency.
According to UNHCR, some countries neighbouring Haiti were planning to force Haitians to return home despite the fact that with over 1.2 million still homeless, the conditions are not conducive.
The technical definition of refugees, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, includes people feeling persecution but not those fleeing natural disasters; hence, Haitians moving because of the earthquake are not considered refugees.
Loren B Landau, director of Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, told IRIN: “While some Haitians are clearly not victims of political persecution and fled only as a result of the earthquake, there are both moral and political imperatives to ensure that people are protected either within the country or elsewhere. Even if this is not an example of climate change-related displacement, the world’s response to this crisis may set the stage for how wealthy countries that border poor or island states will respond when those homelands are no longer able to sustain their populations.”