Bush's Tough Haitian Policy Comes Under Fire

Refugees being returned without screening; departures seen to drop

THE number of Haitians taking to the high seas for Florida has tailed off markedly since the Bush administration adopted a new hard-line policy on intercepting them.

Those sympathetic to the Haitians and to refugees in general are calling the policy racist, hypocritical, and hard-hearted.

But President Bush's immediate problem is a flood of Haitian refugees 10 times the volume of any previous year. Last week, the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reached its limit of about 12,000 refugees.

On Monday, Mr. Bush ordered the Coast Guard to seize any boatload of Haitian refugees intercepted and return them to Haiti - without screening them for political asylum as has been customary.

It was the second American policy shift in three days. First, Bush ordered the Coast Guard to stop picking Haitians up unless their boats were sinking. He altered the policy over the weekend to toughen it.

Through most of the 1980s, the Coast Guard was assigned to intercept Haitian boat people, take them aboard, sink their boat, interview those who claimed to qualify for political asylum, and return the rest to Haiti. Those few who appeared to have an asylum case were brought to the United States.

As the flood of refugees grew after the military coup d'etat in Haiti eight months ago, the Coast Guard began unloading refugees at Guantanamo and screening asylum seekers there.

As of this week, Haitians can apply for asylum only at the US Embassy in Haiti.

Both Haitian and American analysts share a view that the flow of Haitians will abate if Haitians believe they are not likely to get far. It costs Haitians a few hundred dollars to make the trip from what was the poorest country in the hemisphere in 1986 and which has deteriorated since.

Whether Haitians are migrating for political or economic reasons has become muddled by the political use of economics. After the Haitian army overthrew the country's first popularly elected president eight months ago, the Organization of American States imposed a trade embargo. The embargo has proved especially porous for oil, a critical commodity for sustaining the ruling Army elite. But the economy that feeds the vast majority of the country has been devastated. 60,000 jobs lost

Ray Joseph, editor of the New York-based Haiti Observateur and a former Haitian ambassador to the US, says that at least 60,000 jobs were lost when the international free-trade zones were shut down. In Haiti, he adds, each job supports an average of 10 people, so those job losses cut the livelihood of one-tenth of the population. Since the embargo, Haitians have cut substantial portions of the remaining trees for fuel in a country that was already 90 percent deforested, says Mr. Joseph.

This is what makes the US policy hypocritical, he says: Americans take the lead in grinding down the Haitian economy for political reasons, then call Haitian refugees economic migrants.

He also sees it as racist, because refugees from Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were given much easier entry into the US than the Haitians.

Some members of Congress have similar qualms about the treatment of Haitians, especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Some in Congress may attempt to pass legislation against the Bush policy in some form upon returning from recess.

The administration says that asylum-seekers applying at the embassy in Port-au-Prince are unlikely to be harassed by Haitian officials. US officials have tracked more than 2,000 cases of refu-gees returned to the country and have found no evidence of mis-treatment connected to their re-patriation, says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Fewer left after elections

The flow of Haitian refugees dropped off considerably in 1991, after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took office. Yet the econ-omy continued to deteriorate.

Former US ambassador to Haiti Ernest Preeg says Haitians were making a judgment that, as citizens of a democracy, they would not be accepted as refugees on the shores of Florida. Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador who has just returned from Haiti, says Haitians were also staying home because of "the hope and dignity that I think Aristide gave to these people." Political repression

After the military coup, the flood began. The embargo exacerbated the economic motives, and, according to Mr. White, political repression also drives Haitians onto the open ocean. "Fear pervades that island," he says, referring to the Haitian half of Hispaniola.

The previous year with the highest Haitian immigration, by Coast Guard count, is 1988 with 4,699. In the last eight months, the Coast Guard has picked up more than 34,000. On Tuesday of last week alone, the US picked up 1,635 Haitians, more than the total picked up during many years in the 1980s.

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