U.N. calls for humanitarian exemption in Haiti/D.R. river dispute as Haitians raise funds

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urgently called for a humanitarian exemption for the world agency Friday in an ongoing conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the access to a critical waterway shared by both countries. The dispute has led to the shutdown of the entire 220-mile border.

“The Secretary-General stresses that humanitarian exemptions from the border closure are urgently required to ensure the continuation of all U.N. activities in Haiti,” spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said.

The U.N. stores part of its humanitarian stocks in the Dominican Republic, which its aide agencies would need to have access to in the case of an emergency in Haiti, where gang violence and growing hunger have increased the need for assistance.

Dujarric said the U.N. chief is aware of the announcement by Dominican President Luis Abinader, who on Thursday said he would shut down all land, sea and air crossings with Haiti as of 6 a.m. Friday. The decision is tied to the construction of an irrigation canal on Haitian soil in the Massacre River, which Abinader said will hurt Dominican farmers.

Long a source of conflict between the two contentious neighbors, the Massacre River in northeastern Haiti was the site of a 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. It takes it name, however, from a bloody battle between French and Spanish colonists in the 1700s. The river straddles the town of Ouanaminthe on the Haitian side and the Dominican municipality of Dajabón on the other.

Recently, a group of Haitian farmers and politicians resumed construction of a canal along the river, irritating the Dominican government, which in 2021 protested a similar effort by then-President Jovenel Moïse. The two sides later met in negotiations, and decided that neither country would act unilaterally on river projects. Moïse was assassinated shortly after, and construction stopped because the Haitian government failed to pay the firm building the canal.

In addition to the 2021 agreement , the 1929 “Treaty of Peace, Perpetual Friendship and Arbitration” signed by both governments also established the rights of both nations to use the waters of all the rivers located along the border fairly and equitably.

Despite their turbulent histories, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, are reliant on each other for trade. Haiti, for example, is the Dominican Republic’s third largest trading partner, after the United States and Switzerland, and the more than dozen border markets, all located on the Dominican side, are a source of revenue for tens of thousands of Haitian traders, who on Fridays are allowed to cross the border without passports.

On Friday, Ouanaminthe was quiet and missing the usual buzz accompanying Haitians riding on the back of motorcycles and pushing wheelbarrows across the Massacre River bridge to the Dajabón market to buy and sell goods.

Despite the lull in border traffic, however, there was still some activity as Dominican authorities opened the gates to deport Haitian migrants.

Workers with the U.N. Office for International Migration told the Miami Herald that 350 Haitians were allowed to cross in Ouanaminthe, after voluntarily deciding to leave the Dominican Republic, which has ramped up expulsions of Haitian migrants. Another 32 Haitians were forcibly expelled.

Both the U.N. and the United States are concerned that the diplomatic dispute could aggravate the situation in Haiti, where an escalation in gang violence, kidnappings and killings has led to a dire humanitarian crisis that has left many Haitians without food. Haitians and Dominicans also warn that given the close economic ties between the two neighbors, the river dispute could have dire consequences for people on both sides.

In a social media post, Miguel Vargas Maldonado, the president of the Dominican Revolutionary Party, called Abinader’s measure “extreme” and said that it was already beginning to have “a boomerang” effect against the Dominican Republic, affecting trade with Haiti and “creating a climate of tension and uncertainty that is lethal for tourism and for the image in general of” his country.

Former President Leonel Fernández said the closure and the deployment of Dominican military troops to the border with Haiti was akin to a “call to war.

“Making a display of troops is like a call to war and we are not at war, nor do we want war,” said Fernández, who is running as a presidential candidate for the Fuerza del Pueblo party.

Abinader’s decision to shut down the border came after a last-ditch effort by the Haitian government to calm tensions failed on Thursday. On Friday, Haiti’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Dominican Republic’s ambassador, Faruk Miguel Castillo, to a meeting to explain his government’s actions and intentions.

In a statement issued late Friday, the foreign ministry said that during the meeting acting Foreign Minister Emmelie Prophete Milce met with Castillo and expressed the government’s disapproval over “these disproportionate measures, which will have negative consequences on relations between the two countries.”

“She also expressed her concerns for the security of Haitian nationals in the Dominican Republic and asked the Dominican ambassador for his government to take all measures to protect them,” the statement said.

The statement also said that a Haitian delegation, which flew to Santo Domingo on Wednesday to discuss the matter, ended bilateral negotiations and flew back Thursday, after Dominican president followed through on his threats to close the land, air and sea borders with Haiti.

Earlier in the week, Abinader froze visas for Haitians and announced he would seal the border if the conflict could not be resolved. On Thursday, he made good on the promise, announcing that the Dominican army, navy and air force would enforce the closure, which also led to a suspension of all flights the following day.

The Dominican president also made public a list of nine Haitians, most of them former parliamentarians and ministers in Moïse’s government, whom the country..

If Abinader, who is running for re-election and has been accused of fanning anti-Haitian sentiment in his country to win voter support, was hoping his move would ease tensions, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Haitians mocked him in social media videos, and in nearby Fort-Liberté on Friday they launched a fundraising marathon on behalf of the canal’s construction. As farmers went door-to-door collecting money and donations of cement, others made phone calls to raise funds.

In a statement issued late Thursday, the Haitian government evoked its sovereign right to have “full access” to the Massacre River. It also announced that it would support the canal’s construction.

Haitians also reacted to Abinader’s move by taking to social media to exclaim their disdain in skits and issue warnings. In at least one instance, it appears to have led to an arrest. The Dominican publication Listin Diario reported Friday that Dominican police arrested Jude Charles, a 44-year-old Haitian national, in the Santa Lucía section of the municipality of Santa Cruz, for allegedly disrespecting Abinader in a video posted on TikTok.