ANSE-A-PITRE, Haiti (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans have fled the Dominican Republic in response to its strict new immigration policy with many settling in squalid camps in Haiti.
Haitian officials estimate the population at four camps in the south of Haiti is at least 2,000 and growing.
About 400 have settled at the Tete-à-l‘eau camp, perched on a hill that slants down to a dry river bed. It was once the site of a larger village washed out in floods decades ago, but now it suffers from a drought.
Women wash clothes and children fill small buckets of water alongside donkeys drinking from a spring about 1 km from the camp. Without a well or tap in Tete-à-l‘eau, camp-dwellers use this water for everything.
Haiti and the more prosperous Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. With Dominicans increasingly intolerant of a growing Haitian population - estimated as high as 1 million - on their side of the border, a 2013 Dominican court ruling stripped Dominican citizenship from children born to undocumented immigrants.
The vast majority of those affected are Haitian.
To implement the court ruling and in response to an international outcry, the Dominican Congress passed a law allowing some migrants to apply for residency before a June 17 deadline, and the government said last week that 239,000 people who started the process can stay for up to two years.
The government says it has not begun deportations but that tens of thousands of Haitians left voluntarily.
The Haitians here say they either cut their losses and left with their belongings or been intimidated into leaving.
“I lived over there for 22 years,” said Jean Louis Andres, motioning his sinewy arm across the rocky river bed at Tete-à-l‘eau, near the border town of Anse-à-Pitre. Across the gulch was the Dominican Republic. “They don’t want me there. I know that.”
A rail-thin farmer who grew beans, corn and bananas in the Dominican Republic, he says he began the process of applying for residency but returned to Haiti three months ago after Dominicans in his adopted village harassed him into leaving.
Without homes to return to, many settled in the camps here and depend on food and supplies from aid and church groups. Haitian President Michel Martelly has called their plight a humanitarian crisis.
Frantz Pierre Louis, the general secretary of Haiti’s Southeast Department where there are four camps, says officials will try to resettle the camp residents to their home villages of nearby cities.
Government agencies are surveying people and determining where in Haiti they are originally from.
Prime Minister Evans Paul and Sofia Martelly, the president’s wife, have both visited the camps but the government has been unable to provide much help.
“People here barely have food. Twice the government came and gave out hygiene kits. We need food!” Andres said.
Some say they were deceived into leaving, including through false media reports.
“On the radio they told us President Martelly asked all Haitians to come back,” recounts Eliza Joseph, a woman who returned to Haiti last month.
She now lives in Parc Cadeau, a settlement with more than 500 shelters built with branches, cardboard and other discarded materials. “I worked my whole life over there. I don’t know where I‘m from in Haiti.”
Joseph’s daughter Talid Michel delivered a son inside a tent three weeks ago. “We called for the doctor, but he didn’t get here in time, so my mother helped,” Michel said.
In an already arid zone made worse by drought, new residents at Parc Cadeau have burnt shrubs and cut cactus to make room for the growing population.
Camps like Cadeau are growing by the day with returnees and, despite the squalid conditions, impoverished Haitians from nearby cities are beginning to show up too in search of food and supplies.
“They’re in need. They’re in need also,” said Pierre Louis. “So they’re trying to get what’s coming to the others.”
A few miles east of Malpasse, the closest border crossing to Port-au-Prince, 72 people are living in a three-room school or in tents behind it.
“I left Haiti when I was seven. All my children were born there,” said Saint Corl Souverain, 35, speaking in a mix of Spanish and Creole.
He said he was recently arrested by Dominican authorities and that when he was released and returned home, all his possessions were gone so he left the country with his pregnant wife and three children and has settled for now at the school.
Reporting by Peter Granitz; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Kieran Murray