By Duncan Tucker
Emmanuel’s* dreams may seem humble, but they are not so different from those of millions of our planet’s inhabitants.
“To get a job to help my wife and children. And to support my family back in Haiti,” he tells me, in a shelter in Mexico City. “We left in search of a better life for our families.”
Emmanuel has risked his life to pursue his dreams. He has crossed half a continent on foot and by bus. He has survived kidnapping, robbery and extortion. All so he could rebuild his life with his wife, son and daughter in a safe place.
Thousands of people like him have been forced to flee Haiti in recent years, due to extreme poverty and natural and humanitarian disasters that have left more than 4.4 million people facing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity. They are also fleeing widespread violence in a country where the government has been implicated in crimes against humanity and where even President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July.
But when they arrive in Mexico or the US, the authorities of these countries often seek to deport them to Haiti. This is not an appropriate response to a grave human rights crisis. International law exists precisely for situations like this and states that no one should be returned to a place where their life would be at risk.
Emmanuel is 34 years old. He studied mechanics but had to drop out of school because he could not afford to pay for his classes. He left Haiti in 2009 to search for better opportunities. Leaving his country was “very sad,” he says, “but if there’s no way for you to live then you have to leave.”
He took his family to Brazil, where his wife worked in the daytime while he looked after the kids. Then he went out to work at night, operating industrial machinery. Yet they still did not earn enough to support the family. Moreover, he says he suffered constant discrimination from Brazilians who called him a “damn Haitian” and stigmatized him because of his socioeconomic situation. So they decided to leave again, crossing 10 countries with the aim of reaching the United States.
In many countries, police or immigration authorities extorted money from them to let them pass. The worst incident happened in Veracruz, Mexico, where men without uniforms boarded their bus and demanded their documents. They grabbed Emmanuel and three other Haitian men, threw them into a car, blindfolded them and tied their hands and feet.
They then took them to a house, where they demanded $3,500 USD for each of them to let them go. They beat them as they went through their belongings, says Emmanuel, and “started bringing out lots of big guns”.
“We told them, ‘our families don’t have money to pay,’” says Josué, another of the kidnapped men. “And they said ‘if you don’t pay, you don’t get out of here. You have to pay. If you don’t, you’re staying here with no food or water, and we’re going to kill you.’”
The four Haitians spent nine days there, fearing for their lives, until their families managed to raise $2,000 for each of them. Upon receiving the ransom, their captors returned their mobile phones to them and released them on a highway.
Other Haitians in the shelter tell similar stories. Eddy, from Port-au-Prince, is 37 years old. He worked as a plumber for the American Red Cross in Haiti for five years but grew tired of the daily violence he faced in his country. “I’ve never been safe from violence when I’ve been there,” he tells me. “Never.”
Wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, Eddy is lying on a mattress on the floor while the afternoon rain batters the windows. He says he saw terrible things during his trip, especially in the infamous Darien Gap, an almost inaccessible stretch of Panamanian jungle controlled by armed groups. He was robbed there and witnessed a mother and her 13-year-old daughter being abused.
“It’s hell,” he says. “I told God I’d rather die than go back there again.”
Upon arriving in Mexico, Eddy spent six days in an overcrowded immigration detention centre, alongside people he says were diagnosed with Covid-19. In addition, he says he was robbed again by three men with machetes and two with guns just after passing through customs in the state of Chiapas. They took all his belongings and when he begged them to return his passport, they beat him in the head.
Eddy estimates that he spent $3,000 to reach Mexico. But now, without identification, he cannot receive transfers. “That’s why I came [to the shelter]. I have family to help me pay for a hotel, but without documents I can’t receive money.”
Many people sold all their possessions in Haiti to finance their journey. Emmanuel says he sold all he had for the chance to give his family a better life. Now, after everything, he fears the authorities will send them back to a country where they have nothing.
“If we arrive here and they deport us, it’s a crime,” Emmanuel says. “You’re going to leave with great sadness, because you spent all your savings getting here, and you make it, and they deport you. And what are you going to live off there? You don’t have a house, where are you going to sleep? You don’t have food, what are you going to eat there? And how are you going to send your children to school?”
Nevertheless, the US authorities have returned more than 7,000 people to Haiti in recent weeks, despite acknowledging in May that the country was not a safe place to receive deportees. For its part, the Mexican government announced in September that it would provide refuge for more than 13,000 Haitians, but so far it has continued to deport hundreds more.
This is unacceptable. The authorities in both countries must guarantee the universal right to seek asylum and stop the deportations immediately. In addition, as the UN has stated, they must “offer protection mechanisms or other legal stay arrangements for more effective access to regular migration pathways”.
Instead of judging or stigmatizing those fleeing Haiti, Emmanuel suggests that people in other countries consider what they would do if they were in his shoes.
“You would go to other countries in search of a new life,” he says. “Just like us.”
*Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identity.
Duncan Tucker is Amnesty International’s regional media manager for the Americas.