Haitians queue up at night to legalize their status at the Interior Ministry in Santo Domingo, on June 16, 2015
Santo Domingo (AFP) - More than 17,000 undocumented Haitians have voluntarily left the Dominican Republic since the end of a controversial registration process that left thousands of people facing deportation, officials said Friday.
The Dominican Republic gave undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom are from impoverished Haiti, until June 17 to register with the authorities or face deportation.
But with documents slow to arrive from Haiti and Dominican registration offices overwhelmed by the crowds of applicants, more than 180,000 people were still unregistered by the deadline, according to the Dominican government.
Of those, 17,456 have so far left for Haiti voluntarily, said the director general of the Dominican immigration authority, Ruben Paulino.
More than 800 of them left on buses provided by the Dominican government, he added.
"We will be incentivizing the voluntary exit and return of all, right up to the last minute. When that phase is finished, we will begin non-voluntary returns," said presidential aide Jose Ramon Peralta.
Immigration officials have promised not to carry out mass deportations and say each case will be considered individually.
As of the registration deadline, more than 450,000 Haitians were estimated to live in the neighboring Dominican Republic -- 90 percent of its immigrants and 5.4 percent of the total population.
Just one in 10 had legal status.
A border crossing between Ouanaminthe and Dajabon was closed on the Haitian side for part of the day Friday, according to the Haitian government spokesman.
Haiti and its neighbor share four official border posts.
- 'Subterfuge' -
The process drew international warnings that it could provoke a new humanitarian disaster in fragile Haiti, still struggling to recover from its 2010 earthquake and a subsequent cholera outbreak.
It was also criticized for leaving the Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants effectively stateless and facing deportation to a country many of them have never known.
Haiti's Prime Minister Evans Paul on Thursday slammed the deportation policy as discriminatory.
"The problem is that the Dominicans are using what I call subterfuge to mix nationality and race," he told AFP.
"This is all to say anyone who is black is assumed to be Haitian, even if they were born in the Dominican Republic."
Dominican President Danilo Medina rejected criticism of the program as discriminatory, saying it was in fact designed to benefit thousands of Haitians.
"We're not going to accept false accusations of racism or xenophobia, which are baseless in a country that has been defined for centuries by the blending of cultures," he said on the sidelines of a summit in Guatemala.
Relations are often strained between Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and the Dominican Republic, the comparatively wealthy neighbor with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.
Haitian immigrants have long been targets of resentment and racism in the Dominican Republic, which boiled over into the massacre of thousands of them in 1937 under the orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.