Explaining and Predicting: The Dominican Republic’s Response to the Haitian Crisis

This explainer examines relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, analyzes Dominican President Luis Abinader's response to the Haitian crisis, and explores the challenges his country faces in the coming months.


Image Source: AP.

As the crisis in Haiti unravels with gangs controlling 80 percent of Port-au-Prince and ongoing discussions to establish a transitional government following embattled acting prime minister Ariel Henry’s resignation announcement, fears of a regional spillover have increased. The possibility of a major regional destabilization driven by a massive influx of migrants raises alarms throughout the Western Hemisphere. From Jamaica to the Bahamas and the United States, governments across the region are cracking down on undocumented Haitian migrants. The Biden administration has already made it clear that it does not plan to allow a moratorium on deportation and will not extend the Temporary Protected Status to more Haitians. Sharing a border, the Dominican Republic, a country with a tumultuous relationship with Haiti, faces the most significant pressure to address the humanitarian crisis next door. Risking a backlash from human rights organizations, the Dominican government has taken a series of measures to prevent the influx of migrants, including the construction of a fortified border wall, shutting down the border, and the mass deportation of migrants. This explainer examines relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, analyzes Dominican President Luis Abinader’s response to the Haitian crisis, and explores the challenges his country faces in the coming months.

How does the Dominican Republic’s geographical proximity and its historical relations with Haiti shape its strategic approach to the current crisis in Haiti? 

Relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti have been often characterized by tension and conflict. Though both share the same island, vast developmental, racial, and cultural differences have historically separated the neighboring countries. A string of corrupt leaders and violent coups, combined with the “double debt” it had to pay to France, plunged Haiti into decades of deep poverty and instability. On the other hand, after emerging from military dictatorship the Dominican Republic was able to thrive, building stable democratic institutions and becoming one of the region’s fastest growing economies. There is a long history of migration flows between both countries, leading to diplomatic and racial tensions.

The tense historical relationship and the influx of migrants to the Dominican Republic has fostered prejudice towards Haitians, a sentiment known as antihaitianismo. These sentiments grew under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, under whose orders the Dominican army carried out the Perejil Massacre, during which an estimated 15,000 Haitians were killed. Trujillo claimed the Haitians had entered the country illegally through the town of Dajabón, the same border crossing which is at the center of today’s immigration crisis. Even after Trujillo, the Dominican state continued to target the presence of Haitians in the country, such as in the controversial 2013 ruling that denied citizenship for all Dominican-born Haitians, rendering them stateless. Today, while it supports the proposed Kenya-led multinational security support mission, the Dominican Republic has taken a non-interventionist approach and has directed its efforts towards strengthening border security.

What is the current situation at the DR-Haiti border, and how does this reflect the Dominican Republic’s broader security and foreign policy goals? 

The situation on the 391 km border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic remains delicate and contentious. Thousands of Haitians have rushed to the border trying to flee from the crisis-ravaged country. According to the United Nations, today in Haiti there are 362,000 displaced people and an estimated 15,000 new homeless persons in Port-au-Prince. The Dominican government has taken a series of measures to manage the influx of migrants including the construction of a USD 120 million border wall, sporadically shutting down the border, and the mass deportation of undocumented migrants. According to official figures from the Dominican Republic, in 2023 nearly 250,000 Haitians were expelled from the country. 

As a result the Dominican government has been under intense pressure from human rights advocates and international humanitarian agencies – including from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – to stop mass deportations. Nonetheless, President Luis Abinader has doubled down, making it clear that his administration will continue to deport haitians and will not allow the construction of refugee camps. Despite tightening border security, the Dominican Republic has allowed some Haitians to enter Dajabón for food provisions and medical assistance. 

What specific actions has the Dominican Republic taken to respond to the crisis in Haiti? 

The administration of President Luis Abinader has prioritized strengthening the country’s national security, as well as advocating for the cooperation of the international community to contain the Haitian crisis. At the beginning of March, when an escalation of gang violence led to the release of 3,000 prisoners, the Dominican Republic shut its border with Haiti completely, restricting the flow of goods and people and sending 10,000 troops to the border. The government characterized the measure as a reflection of President Luis Abidaner’s willingness to work towards a peaceful conflict resolution to the situation in Haiti while protecting the safety of the Dominican Republic. 

Since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, the Dominican Republic has warned about the deterioration of the security situation in Haiti and advocated for a more active involvement of the United Nations. Moreover, President Abinader has recently called out the United Nations and Biden administration for the delays in deploying a security mission to Haiti. Amid the growing instability, last February President Abinader flew to New York to ask the United Nations Security Council to intervene in Haiti in order to restore order, declaring “…either we fight together to save Haiti or we will fight alone to protect the Dominican Republic.” Though it has not pledged any specific participation itself, the Dominican Republic has welcomed the Kenya-led mission deployment to Haiti.  

Assessing the threat of Haiti’s gang activities potentially extending into the Dominican Republic or further into the Caribbean, what implications does this scenario hold for the DR’s security strategies? 

The Dominican Republic serves as a buffer zone between Haiti and the Lesser Antilles, including Puerto Rico. Were the gang violence in Haiti to spread to the eastern portion of the island, it could pose a major security threat to not only the rest of the Caribbean but the United States as well. President Abinader’s refusal to allow Henry to stay in the Dominican Republic is based in part on very real fears over the possibility of gang members crossing the border and expanding the conflict. With the overwhelming number of Haitians waiting to enter the country in Dajabón, gang members slipping past border patrol is a real possibility. 

In addition to the flow of people, the Dominican Republic must also worry about the illegal arms trade, which has been fueling the violence in Haiti. Guns are being trafficked from Florida and other southern states with lenient gun laws. Haiti’s gangs have access to advanced firearms like military grade sniper rifles and AK-47s, greatly overpowering anything at the disposal of the national police. There were already established smuggling routes along the 392 km border before the Dominican Republic shut its doors, and a UN report found that the 400 Mawozo gang was working with Dominican traffickers to bring marijuana and homemade firearms into Haiti. Abinader has warned the international community that the Dominican Republic will need help in containing the crisis, and it will do what it must to guard its national security.  

As the security situation in Haiti worsens, what can we expect from the Dominican Republic’s policy towards Haiti?

Given the complex history between both countries, Santo Domingo has little appetite to have a more active involvement in Haitian affairs. The Dominican Republic will continue to focus on securing the border to prevent a spillover of the crisis, as well as to avoid being part of the discussion on Haiti’s political and institutional future. Indeed in a recent high-stakes Caribbean Community (CARICOM) emergency meeting hosted in Kingston, Jamaica, in which regional leaders, including from the United States, decided to withdraw support from Prime Minister Ariel Henry and unveil a transitional plan, the Dominican Republic was absent. 

As the Dominican Republic prepares for presidential elections in May, the situation in Haiti has become a crucial issue in the national debate. President Abinader, who is currently leading in the polls by double digits, has maintained a consistent policy, advocating and even begging the international community to help Haiti. Abinader has also doubled down on efforts to secure the border. As the security situation worsens, the current policy towards Haiti would certainly remain in place during a second Abinader administration. 

More Commentary

Scroll to Top