PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Two years ago, Ferlando Jean lost his identity card at a bus station while traveling to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The journey to replace it has become an unyielding struggle. The 32-year-old financial agent says he has visited the National Identification Office in Diquini, a suburb in the town of Carrefour, 10 times this year to check if his replacement is ready. Each time he goes, he finds a convergence of people who share his troubles, all waiting to be served.
The officers at the National Identification Office always urge him to return another day, without giving him a definitive date when the replacement will be ready.
“I have been doing everything I can,” Jean says. “It is so difficult to get documents in this country, where everything works slowly. And this card is so important, losing it is a big deal.”
Jean is no outlier. Frustrated Haitians endure long wait times and bureaucratic hurdles to obtain or replace identity cards and passports, a situation that has left many in limbo, while others pay significant amounts of money to obtain these documents through a booming black market.
The problem, according to a 2022 report from Bertelsmann Stiftung, a research foundation based in Germany, is that rampant corruption and mismanagement plague the registration system. The process of applying for new documents alone poses a significant challenge, as applicants sometimes have to wait for more than a year for the registration office to process an identification card.
Governments under former presidents Jovenel Moïse — who was assassinated in July 2021 — René Garcia Préval and Michel Joseph Martelly attempted to resolve the issue, but many citizens are still not registered in government records.
The demand for identity cards and passports has surged, as people seek to flee the worsening insecurity in Haiti via a United States government program that allows Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to legally enter the country, provided they find a U.S.-based sponsor.
“Today, with the parole program from the American government, I need my card. Without it, I cannot apply for a passport,” says Annecie François, a shopkeeper, who lost her identification card two years ago and has been unable to replace it.
She hopes that her son, who lives in the United States, will ask her to join him through the visa program. But she must have a passport. To apply for one, she needs an identification card, which she is unable to replace. François says she has been disappointed each time she has gone to the identification office to collect a replacement.
Anne Myriam Bolivar, GPJ Haiti
Having no identification card denies her more than the opportunity to travel. Whenever her son sends her money, someone with an identification card must receive the funds on her behalf since she can’t transact without one. At times, she pays for this service. The process not only costs her money but also denies her privacy.
Like François, Jean has had to rely on the kindness of friends for transactions that require an identification card.
“A friend has been helping me with bank transactions,” he says. The friend deposits and transacts on his behalf through his bank account. He knows it isn’t the best option as it denies him other necessary documents such as bank statements, which are useful for visa applications.
The problem, says Pierre Esperance, the coordinator of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Port-au-Prince, is that government institutions are not doing their jobs. It is the state’s responsibility to provide identification cards to every citizen free of charge, he says. Failure to do so denies citizens their right to identity.
“The identity card is very important for the state as well as for the citizen. It allows the state to identify the citizen, and it allows the citizen to have access to other services such as banking, telephone, finding a job,” Esperance says.
In fact, this increasing demand for the documents has given rise to a booming black market where agents promise to process documents faster — in exchange for a substantial fee.
At one point, Jean says he became so helpless, he considered shelling out between 2,000 and 4,000 Haitian gourdes (between 14 and 29 U.S. dollars) to black market agents, but he didn’t want to pay for a public service that’s meant to be free. He chose to wait.
Brutus, who wishes to use only his first name, says leaving the country would provide him an opportunity to pursue his goals. His cousin, who lives in the United States, had offered to help him apply for the visa program. He even sent him money to apply for a passport, but given the number of passport and identity card applications and long waiting times, he needed a quick solution.
“I have a friend who recommended me to someone who could help me. I spent the sum of 75,000 gourdes [about 542 dollars],” he says.
He managed to acquire the passport through the black market, but it was costly. Brutus says he initially paid 40,000 gourdes (289 dollars) to process the document. He then paid an additional 10,000 gourdes (72 dollars) because he needed the first page of the passport to start the visa process. After being told that it would take two months to process the rest of the passport, he decided to pay another 10,000 gourdes to expedite it. The rest he spent on transport, accommodation and food.
But the government has been making efforts to address the backlog and booming black market. Wandy Charles, the communication director of the National Identification Office, says they have noted an increase in requests for identification card replacements since the U.S. visa program was introduced.
“But we have reinforced our offices to help them get their identification cards,” he says.
Normally, if there are no issues, it takes about eight working days to replace an identity card if the applicant provides the required information, he says. However, he concedes there have been some delays due to factors such as lack of electricity, which they need to print cards.
Sometimes, applicants who want to replace their cards also try to shirk the system by applying for a new card or registering for a new one under a different name instead of reporting a lost one. All this, Charles says, slows down the process.
So far, the registration office has delivered 4 million identification cards in total, he says. Based on the 2021 estimates by the Haitian Institute of Statistics and Computer Science, this is only about 54% of those eligible for an identity card (over 18 years old) in Haiti.
Charles says they are working to improve the system and make sure that everyone who is of legal age has an identification card. “We have put numbers available on WhatsApp,” he says, “so people can send their declaration of loss [to] the police in an easier way.”
In March, the government set up an online identity document-request platform — Delidoc — to quicken the process of applying for official documents.
Aline, who prefers to use her first name for fear or being identified, has used the Delidoc platform, which she says is a big step toward fighting the black market. In April, she booked a biometrics appointment and was told her passport would be ready in June. Although she went for the biometrics appointment, she needed the passport faster.
“Someone referred me to another person so that I could have it in 15 days, so I paid 10,000 gourdes for that,” she says.
Rezo Fanm Kapab Dayiti (Refkad), a network of more than 30 organizations promoting the equality and protection of women and girls, has been trying to help those who have lost their identification cards and other important documents by sharing this information through their Facebook group. Although the organization has existed since 2011, it started sharing this information on its platform over a year ago. Nadine Anilus, the organization’s network coordinator, says they have been collaborating with police stations and public transport drivers to recover lost documents, especially identity cards.
“For about a year, we have been dealing with isolated cases that come to ask for our help, but for some time the number of people who have lost their identity documents, bank cards or other has increased and we have seen the need in helping these people. This way, they will save time and money,” Anilus says.
The group has so far helped over 700 people recover their lost ID cards and other important documents. Mireille Luxama, a 24-year-old office secretary from Port-au-Prince, is among those who recovered their identification cards through Refkad’s Facebook page. A friend directed her to the page.
Wood-Anne, 20, a student who also wishes to use her first name for fear of being identified, wants to take advantage of the U.S. program to relocate. She wants to study in a more peaceful environment.
“I want to escape social problems and politics that are rampant in Haiti, a country that has become a difficult place to live,” she says.
Wood-Anne, who has lived with her aunt since she was 13, also wants to be closer to her mother, who lives in the U.S. under temporary protection status. But she does not have a passport and cannot apply for one, as she lost her identification card. She has been waiting for a replacement for more than three months.
“I was told that the card will be ready in a month, but unfortunately I haven’t [gotten] it yet,” she says. “I’m waiting.”