02/27/2015 07:40 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2015

Stateless and Silenced

HECTOR RETAMAL via Getty Images

Today is Independence day in the Dominican Republic. Across the country, thousands of Dominicans will celebrate the 171st anniversary since the expulsion of the Haitian government after 22 years in power, controlling the entire island of Hispanola. Incidentally the anniversary of Dominican independence from Spain, who colonized the country twice, passes without notice.

Independence from Haiti didn't bring about a peaceful resolution between the two countries. Under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in 1937, between 9,000 and 20,000 Haitians were macheted to death, just for their nationality. This violent event, known as the Parsley Massacre, has been burnt into the collective memory of Haitians and their descents living in the Dominican Republic.

Fast forward to today and these descendants are facing fresh issues of discrimination themselves. This week thousands of Haitians in Port-au-Prince protested against the treatment of Haitians and Haitian Dominicans in the DR. This was sparked by the fact that earlier this month, Henry Claude Jean, Dominican shoeshiner of Haitian descent, was lynched in a public square in the Dominican city of Santiago. There have been conflicting accounts of exactly what happened, but tensions are running high between the two nations.

Racism has long since been an issue in the region. When I was living in a Haitian settlement a few years ago, I saw daily examples of discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent, who are recognized for having darker skin than other Dominicans. They would regularly be taken off public buses and asked to present papers by police officials, and were frequently subject to verbal abuse as well as institutionalized racism that prevented them from having access to equal levels of education and employment. As a teacher in a Dominican school, I felt helplessly frustrated for the bright students in the class who would not be allowed to continue past eighth grade, because they didn't have the Dominican papers that they needed in order to sit the national exam to go to high school. However, at that time the law only affected those students whose parents had not registered their birth.

Things have become worse since the Dominican Republic's Supreme Court in 2013, which retroactively denied birthright citizenship to people born in the country after 1929 to illegal immigrant parents. Haitians, who make up 85 percent of the immigrants in the DR were hit hard by the ruling, which stripped 200,000 of them of their citizenship, rendering them stateless. Having never been to Haiti, nor having Haitian documents, these people are left unprotected by any state and prevented from voting, going to school or working legally. This means that they face a cycle of exploitation working in sugarcane plantations, where many Haitians were encouraged to work through bilateral agreements between the Haiti and the DR, who aimed to relocate a cheap labour force.

A number of parents in the village, so concerned that they are for the status of their children in the eyes of the Dominican legislation, have registered their children under other people's names in order to make sure that they are recognized as Dominican by the state. This means that there are children who are having their history on paper rewritten in order to protect their right to education and a state under which they may be protected.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the ruling passed by the Dominican Supreme Court, and in November 2014 the Dominican Republic passed another ruling declaring that the Dominican Republic's acceptance of the Inter-American Court's authority was unconstitutional -- an acceptance which had passed over 15 years earlier.

International concern has risen over the situation of stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent, and prolific writers, Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat have expressed their concerns about the human rights issue across a number of platforms including newspapers, social media and in public talks. An open letter signed by numerous Dominicans living in the U.S. was written to New York's governor at the end of 2014. Junot Diaz faced a great deal of criticism from intellectuals and government officials in the Dominican Republic following his comments on the issue, and has his "Dominican-ness" challenged.

This month similar accusations of "unpatriotic" attitudes were directed at Dominican journalists in the DR. Amnesty International expressed concerns when four journalists reported that they had been harassed and received death threats after covering the issues facing Dominicans of Haitian descent.

In May 2014 the Dominican Republic passed a ruling which required that those born to undocumented foreign parents, whose birth was never declared, register to a scheme to obtain a residence permit which would be needed to later claim citizenship in the country. The deadline for this was February 1, 2015, and only about five percent of the people entitled to do so have managed to register. There are three primary reasons for this. Firstly, illiteracy and lack of awareness has limited the number of people who have had access, others reject the idea that they have to reapply for papers which they already held, and those who have tried to register have found themselves faced with a number of bureaucratic hurdles that have made it impossible to do so.

Being stateless effectively makes those affected by the ruling voiceless too, and it appears that the voices of Dominicans speaking out against the treatment of Haitian Dominicans are also being silenced. On the most patriotic day of the year, it is important to remember those Dominicans who in every way consider themselves to be Dominican, who have been abandoned by the state that they call home.