New Haiti Refugee Policy Draws Fire From Activists

Shipboard screening of asylum-seekers helps, rights advocates say, but it doesn't go far enough to protect persecuted boat people

CARING, but not overly. Humane, without being soft. Receptive, but still somewhat standoffish.

Such phrases describe the tone President Clinton is apparently trying to strike with his new policy toward Haitian refugees. By slightly relaxing the United States' practice of forcibly repatriating Haitian boat people, Clinton hopes to quiet critics who have demanded less-harsh measures. At the same time, he does not want to invite a new influx of boat people that will flood Florida and damage his standing in that politically important state.

Details of the policy's implementation will determine if the White House can balance on this particular knife-edge. For now, refugee groups point out that simply processing refugees at sea will by itself make no difference in the number of Haitians eligible for admittance to the US. They complain that shipboard screening will be a hasty process with little regard for nuance and no right of appeal.

``The new policy will mean the forcible return of 95 percent of boat people instead of 100 percent,'' charges Gretta Tovar-Siebentritt, a Haiti analyst at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Meanwhile, Florida politicians remain transfixed by the vision of hundreds of rickety boats beaching on their shores. They say Clinton's new policy could force them to deal with 10,000 new refugees a month. They base this estimate on the fact that before President Bush ordered a blockade of Haitian refugees in 1992, some 13,000 Haitians a month were fleeing their nation's shores.

``This policy will devastate Florida,'' charges a Republican congressional staff member.

As yet the US has not officially begun the new practice of shipboard processing for refugees who want political asylum. On May 13, the Coast Guard returned 277 boat people to Port-au-Prince, many of whom had been packed on a 40-foot sailboat intercepted May 12.

Human rights activists assert that when these refugees are dumped back on Haitian docks they face arrest, or worse. The State Department contends that repatriates have not systematically been targets of repression. The US Embassy has confirmed the death of one returned boat person, though officials say that following up accounts of alleged abuse is difficult.

Upon their forced return to Haiti, repatriates are given the opportunity to apply to the US in-country refugee program. Few do. Only 40 have availed themselves of this option so far this year, according to State Department figures. Of these, seven qualified for admittance to the US as legitimate asylum seekers.

When announcing his policy change last week, President Clinton defended the performance of the in-country program. Processing centers have been expanded and are ``doing a good job under bad circumstances,'' he said.

Indeed, in the first three weeks of April, the percentage of applicants judged true political refugees jumped to 19 percent, a State Department official says. Before that the figure had hovered between 6 and 8 percent.

``We attribute that to our working much more closely with human rights organizations to try and reach those people who qualify,'' the State Department official says.

This process was nudged along recently when the US explicitly listed categories of Haitians it would accept. These are senior and mid-level officials from the government of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; close associates of Mr. Aristide; journalists and education activists who reasonably fear persecution; high-profile members of social organizations with similar credible fears; and others thought to be in immediate danger.

Since the program began in February 1992, a total of 2,937 Haitians have won an entry ticket for the US. During that same period, 55,694 Haitians submitted preliminary questionnaires to processing centers. The vast majority of these, according to the State Department, were people attracted for economic reasons, not activists fearing persecution by Haiti's military masters.

The new policy does not relax asylum criteria. Those who flee Haiti will have a chance to make their case before repatriation. But it will still be a hard case to make - and that's the real problem, critics say.

``The US policy excludes people who are not high profile but are persecuted nonetheless,'' Ms. Tovar-Siebentritt says.

Elimination of forced repatriation is just ``window dressing,'' says Nicholas Rizza, national refugee coordinator for Amnesty International.

Despite Florida's fears, the numbers of refugees at issue are relatively small, Mr. Rizza says: ``All the Haitians that have left their country since 1981 amount to little more than half the refugees of all nationalities the US voluntarily admits each year.''

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