By Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa Citizen
By all accounts, the prisons in Haiti are some of the worst in the world. The prisoners have little access to medical treatment, and even, in some cases, to adequate food and clean water.
At one prison in Port-au-Prince, the average cell space per prisoner is 0.42 meters square. That’s less than the the amount of space you’d need to stand up and swing your arms around.
Imagine living with other people at that distance from you, sleeping in shifts because you can’t all lie down at the same time. Add in, of course, inadequate toilet facilities, disease and danger.
Merely being put in prison in Haiti often constitutes “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to Michel Forst, the independent expert on human rights in Haiti who’s about to present his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. (The report was only available in French as I was preparing this column; the translations are mine.)
In that report, he notes that “since 1996, deportees arriving from the United States and Canada are immediately incarcerated on Haitian territory, with the deportees with the most serious records going directly to the national penitentiary for at least three months.”
Since 2004, Canada has deported 161 people to Haiti. The various official sources disagree as to whether all deportees are detained on arrival in Haiti, but there’s no doubt that some are.
Prisoners in Haiti have difficulty exercising legal rights. One of the reasons for the crowding of Haitian prisons is that many people who are sent there don’t go to trial for years, if they go at all. The justice system is still mired in incompetence and corruption.
The number of deportees arriving in Haitian prisons and slums has been increasing in recent months, Forst reports. In most cases, they’ve violated U.S. immigration laws or have committed minor crimes. Most of them come from the United States, and are unlikely to speak French or Creole. The average deportee is not a recent arrival to the wealthy world. He’s someone who came to the United States or Canada between the ages of four and seven, and who returned to Haiti between the ages of 28 and 48. In other words, if they’re criminals, they didn’t learn that criminality in Haiti.
Canada, to its credit, is not deporting illegal immigrants to Haiti (or several other countries where the lives of deportees could be in danger) at the moment. But, according to an e-mail I received from the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada does deport Haitians “determined to be inadmissible to Canada on grounds of security, violating human or international rights, or criminality.” We deport between 25 and 35 such people to Haiti every year.
Of course we have every right to deport non-citizens who have criminal records. But what we can do and what we should do are not always the same. It’s morally dubious for us to knowingly send human beings — whether or not they’ve broken the law — to prisons where we know they’ll be mistreated.
It also doesn’t make much sense for Canada to dole out vast amounts of money with one hand so Haiti can deal with its prison and crime problems, while contributing to those very problems with the other. Once they get out of detention, many deportees fall in with much worse criminals, and contribute to Haiti’s massive crime problem. There’s also a possibility they’ll fall victim to the lynch-mob justice that has taken root in the absence of official justice.
“If Canada and the United States send back to Haiti currently that sort of people, it is increasing the level of violence and it’s difficult for Haiti to fight against that,” Forst told me in an interview last week. “The best support that Canada can do in that area is to keep the people in Canada and not to send them back. It doesn’t cost a lot of money. I’m sure that Canada has the means to keep the people here and oversee their situation here.”
At the very least, Canada has a duty to follow up on the cases of people it deports to places like Haiti or Somalia, to ensure that their most basic rights are being respected, that they are not slowly starving to death in a crowded and fetid cell.
The International Organization for Migration helps deportees reintegrate into Haitian society. Canada can and should support such efforts, and should continue to help Haiti build prisons and a working justice system.
There are ways to protect Canadian society while doing our best to protect Haitians and their human rights.
Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board. Blog: ottawacitizen.com/worldnextdoor