The world should start accepting Haitian refugees: Aprajita Kashyap

Down To Earth speaks to academician from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies on the situation in Haiti

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 26 May 2023

Photo: @UNHumanRights /TwitterA gang war in Haiti. Photo: @UNHumanRights /Twitter

Haiti, which occupies one-half of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea, is in the midst of turmoil. Already battered in 2010 from an earthquake that it has not yet been able to recover from, the country is currently imploding.

A string of unpopular leaders have held power in the country since 2010 and none has run the course. To make matters worse, the leaders maintained armed gangs as their private militia which then turned rogue.

In 2021, the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his bedroom. His successor, Ariel Henry is unpopular among the people. Meanwhile, daily attacks by gangs on civilians and inter-gang rivalry have made the country a living hell.

The United Nations recently called the situation in Haiti a ‘humanitarian emergency’. Down To Earth spoke to Aprajita Kahsyap from the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University on the situation in Haiti and possible solutions. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: Do you agree with the UN's recent statement that a ‘time-bound, specialised and human rights compliant support force’ should be deployed by the international community in the country? Haiti has suffered immensely due to international interference throughout its history. Will this be a wise move then?


Aprajita Kashyap: Haiti’s turmoil is such that it can be ended only by sending in foreign troops.

Haiti had decided to disband its army in 1995. At the moment, the country has only 2,000 army personnel. The police is also very weak. How can the ongoing gang wars then be tackled?

Foreign intervention thus is, maybe, an essential component. But who should lead such a force?

Haiti has already burnt its fingers with United States intervention (the US had occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934). Those memories are etched in the minds of Haitians.

The United Nations too can lead a force in Haiti. But its intentions are circumspect since the Haitian people consider it to be acting at the behest of the US.

One proposal is for Canada to lead a multi-lateral force into Haiti. This is because Canada has never aspired to become a great power. It has always remained happy and contented with its middle power status.

It believes in liberal internationalism which holds that every country is equal to another despite differences in size and economy. So, a Canada-led force will be much more acceptable to Haitians than, say, a US- or UN-led one.

However, Canadian premier Justin Trudeau has expressed reservations about the proposal.

It should also be noted that not all Haitians agree to a foreign-led intervention in their country. The present Haitian government is not a proper stand-in for its people.

Thousands of Haitians have protested the idea of foreign intervention. They worry that all this going to be a stop-gap arrangement or a band-aid rather than a long-term solution.

So the issue of foreign intervention in Haiti has two angles to it. Haiti requires it to some extent but the Haitian people are not ready for it.

RG: What about the exodus of Haitians from their own country due to the current situation?

AK: The exodus from Haiti had started in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The country is extremely poor. Nearly 60 per cent of the Haitian population earn $2.41 per day and 24 per cent under $1.23 per day.

The terror unleashed by the gangs accelerated the exodus since Haitians have been left with no other option but to migrate.

But black Haitian refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are treated differently from Hispanic/Latino ones in the US and south of the Rio Grande, mostly due to the colour of their skin.

For instance, Chile, one of the relatively better-off countries in Latin America treated Haitians differently from Venezuelan migrants. Colombia and Panama, meanwhile, have put a cap on the number of migrants from Haiti crossing their borders per day.

The Haitians are in a Catch-22 situation. No country wants them.

RG: Should France and the United States pay reparations to Haiti for the role they have played in its 220-year history?

AK: Haiti, then the colony of Saint Domingue, won independence from France in 1804, becoming the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to become sovereign.

The Haitian Revolution had a domino effect in the region from 1810-1825 as one colony after the other won independence from its colonial master. In a way, Haiti should be credited for this.

But the way in which Haiti challenged France and threw it out caused it to become a pariah state among the dominant white, western powers of that time.

Haiti has paid $22 billion to France as indemnity for the Haitian Revolution which resulted in colonial French planters losing their possessions in the very wealthy colony of Saint Domingue. It is even a matter of conjecture that perhaps part of the cost of building the famous Parisian landmark, the Eiffel Tower would have come from Haiti.

In recent years, the demand for reparations has caught on in the region. Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago have demanded them (reparations) for the treatment meted out to black African slaves who worked in the sugar, coffee and other plantations there, having been forcibly brought over from West Africa in the Middle Passage.

Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadians, the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the region after slavery was abolished in the 1830s, have also demanded reparations.

The demand for reparations to Haiti is justified because the West drained a country that was rich in natural resources of all its wealth. The plight that Haiti is in now, has to be accrued to the colonial powers, especially France and the United States.

RG: What, in your view, should be the roadmap to bring Haiti back on track?

AK: We must remember that the Haitian Revolution was precusor to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Haiti thus has a lot to give to the world.

The first step should be a multi-lateral force in Haiti under Canadian leadership if it is acceptable to politicians and gang leaders across the board.

Second, the world should start accepting Haitian refugees. This would not only be a humane policy approach but would also improve Haitian refugees’ present lot. They should be given a cushion or buffer period till they can return to their country when things get better.

It would also boost the Haitian economy as remittances would flow into the country. According to the World Bank, Haitian expatriates sent nearly $3 billion to their homeland in 2018.

Third, Haiti must strengthen its understaffed army and police if its gang wars are to end. This can be done by co-opting some of the gang members. They are already trained in using arms and hence, such an arrangement will be a win-win. The UN has to be involved in this recruitment.

Holding meaningful elections in Haiti under UN auspices will be a fourth solution. The example of Cambodia is worth emulating here.

Lastly, the power of the current premier of Haiti, Ariel Henry, needs to be checked. That is because he does not have the mandate to rule. His acceptability among Haitians is very poor.

Arms are flowing into Haiti’s unmanned ports. This has to be checked so that gangs are deprived of their weaponry.

Efforts must be made to address the root causes of a social structure that cyclically produces gang leaders who lead mass uprisings that largely comprise Haiti’s youth, resulting in government overthrows. The lasting solution has to come from the domestic quarters. 

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