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Hurricane Matthew Has Spawned Thousands of New Haitian Refugees

The Category 4 hurricane has magnified the country’s immigration crisis.

By Julie Morse


A woman pushes a wheelbarrow while walking in a partially flooded street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on October 4, 2016. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Hurricane Matthew’s lethal winds and rain have already claimed more than 1,000 lives in Haiti. The treacherous storm has obliterated 30,000 homes in the Sud department of the country, 80 percent of the buildings in the city of Jérémie, and left nearly 60,000 people displaced. But in addition to all the immediate damage, the wreckage from the hurricane will also inevitably further intensify the dire immigration crisis many Haitians currently face.

Interim Haitian President Jocelerme Privert declared on Tuesday that the hurricane has put the country on the verge of facing “real famine.” Some communities have seen up to 80 percent of their crops destroyed as a result of Hurricane Matthew, according to the United Nations, and the wreckage has pushed an estimated 600,000 people into shelters.

Haiti is reliving its nightmare of the 2010 earthquake, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake displaced 1.5 million, killed between 220,000 to 316,000 people, and left 75 percent of the population unemployed. In the aftermath of the tremors, a cholera outbreak ravaged several communities. The silver lining came shortly after, when then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that the estimated 130,000 undocumented Haitians living in the United States would be granted temporary protection status (TPS), allowing them to stay and work in the country until July 2011. The status was extended a few more times, and it’s currently set to last until July 2017.

The number of Haitianspermitted residence under TPS, however, has significantly dwindled to 50,000, says a spokesperson from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now, they only make up around 8 percent of the Haitian population in the U.S, a stark contrast to the 586,000 Haitian immigrants in the country in 2015, according to a Pew study.

“Haiti has always been poor, and we have always been willing to migrate to other countries for opportunity.”

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson provoked fear among many Haitianswhen he said, “the situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis.” This means any Haitians not protected by TPS will be deported, and onlythose who express fear of persecution in Haiti will have the opportunity to apply for asylum. Johnson’s announcement does not give any hope to those who are currently displaced from Hurricane Matthew, or the 6,000-some Haitians waiting to cross the border from Tijuana. On Wednesday, he released a statement reiterating his stance.

Felix Rigaud, county director of Hope on a String, a non-governmental organization based in Arcahaie, Haiti, told Pacific Standard that most—if not all—of those displaced from the hurricane will try to find a way out of Haiti. “They have no other option,” he says. “Some will pursue the legal tried and true process of immigration, and many will take the Kantè, or the illegal boat journey from Haiti up north.”

In the last several years, in the midst of the island’s economic crisis and post-earthquake havoc, thousands have fled to Brazil. Enticed by rumors of bountiful work opportunities, many acquired work visas only to be pushed up north as a result of Brazil’s political problems.

The camps of Haitians waiting to be approved for immigration proceedings on the Mexican border have created a humanitarian crisis within itself. Shelters in Tijuana are overflowing, and hundreds of Haitians are forced to sleep out on the streets.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Inspector Sarah Saldaña saidshe expects around 40,000 more Haitians to try to immigrate to the U.S.—a figure that doesn’t encompass the overwhelming number of refugees Hurricane Matthew will inevitably produce. Since 2008, natural disasters have displaced 22.5 million people, or 62,000 people a day, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

Over the last six months, Tijuana has turned into the gatekeeper for worldwide migration into the U.S. In the past year, 330,000 migrants from all over the globe have crossed into Mexico, a 39 percent increase from 2015, and a 62 percent jump from 2014. According to ABC, U.S. migration authorities on the Mexican border can only process 100 cases per day.

“Haiti has always been poor, and we have always been willing to migrate to other countries for opportunity,” says Belange Alce, a Boston-based social worker who moved to the U.S. from Haiti when his family received political asylum in 1993. “Sadly, I don’t think the hurricane will make a difference in who will stay and who will migrate. The people who can afford to travel will leave and others will make a living with what they have to work with.”