Haitian Refugee Surge Reflects Changed US Repatriation Policy

Increased numbers force the US to reopen center at Guantanamo Bay

UNTIL a few days ago, dozens of little boats scattered the sheltered cove of Petit-Goave. They were the livelihood of local fishermen. Today the cove is empty, the fishing boats usurped by desperate Haitians hoping to sail to a better life.

Their departure has more to do with United States policy than with the winds. Residents of this small coastal town 40 miles southwest of the Haitian capital have been taking to the high seas ever since the September 1991 coup dtat that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

President Clinton's decision last month to change the repatriation procedure triggered a new exodus. Instead of being returned to Haiti immediately, Coast Guard cutters now take refugees to an offshore processing center in Jamaica, where immigration officials determine whether they qualify for political asylum.

As soon as news leaked to the mainland that the acceptance rate offshore is five times than that at one of Haiti's three in-country processing centers, the number of boat people this week alone surpassed all of 1993.

Since last Friday, an armada of US Coast Guard cutters and naval vessels, dubbed ``the big American ships,'' has plucked more than 3,500 refugees from their boats, mostly unseaworthy wooden vessels less than 20 feet long. According to local residents, more than 600 were from Petit-Goave.

``People here are taking our local fishing boats and going to La Gonaives,'' says one dock worker, pointing to the Haitian island nestled off the crook of Port-au-Prince Bay. ``They don't need to get to Miami anymore. All they need to do is drift out of the territorial waters and wait to be picked up.

``I don't know in advance when people are leaving. It's only a few days later when I don't see them in town, I realize they've gone,'' the dock worker adds.

``It's difficult to pinpoint any one factor of why they are leaving,'' says US spokesperson Stan Schrager. ``There's the 25 to 30 percent acceptance rate for political asylum at the Jamaica facility. There's the increase in sanctions and an increase in human rights violations. But it's too early to say if it's a trend or just a blip on the screen.''

There's little to indicate a shift in the tide on the horizon, though the US would obviously like the refugee problem to disappear. It is a political wild card, an economic burden, and a logistical nightmare. The rescue, process, and return of refugees is the Coast Guard's largest and most expensive operation. It costs US taxpayers $120,000 per day just for the processing center at Jamaica, where a combined facility of two ships houses only 1,250.

Frantic US officials scrambled Tuesday to reopen the refugee processing center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, which can house 12,500. The US hopes Guantanamo will be a temporary haven until it finishes a new onshore center on the Turk and Caicos Islands north of Haiti. But that site will only hold 2,000. Running Guantanamo from November 1991 until President Bush closed it in May 1992 cost US taxpayers $58 million.

Average acceptance for political asylum on Guantanamo equalled the 5 percent rate here. While the US is pointing to improvements in the number of people accepted in-country, one human rights monitor explains that is just a manipulation of figures.

``They are saying that since March, the in-country acceptance rate has jumped from 5 to 30 percent, but that's because the policy changed last February,'' Anne Fuller from the National coalition for Haitian Refugees explains. ``The earlier statistics reflect the total number of people who applied. Now there is a screening process so the number of people allowed to apply is significantly less.''

Regardless, the policy change is like a magnet. Getting on a boat is as popular as the local cock-fight, though more expensive. An average passenger pays $75. Unconfirmed reports say that in the north, there are already enough boats to provide passage for more than 100,000 people.

One boat-builder in the south, Leveck Louis, is one week shy of finishing his boat. But his home on the coast is just a stone's throw away from the military barracks of Petit-Goave. He says that earlier this week local authorities - in rural areas, the Army - forbade him to work on his boat until further notice.

``It's my livelihood,'' the father of four complains. ``I could have taken advantage of this enthusiasm for leaving and made enough money to pay off my debts. Now I have nothing.''

``People are starving to death,'' says American Baptist Minister Terry Anderson, who has been living in Petit-Goave since 1985. ``It blows my mind how the US can talk about human rights abuses when their embargo is killing people. Without a doubt it's US policy that's responsible for people taking boats.''

The US has maintained that the military is largely responsible for the rampant human rights violations. They are hoping their sanctions will force Army Chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to resign.

The US has repeatedly said that sanctions need time to work, clinging desperately to that hope so they will not have to play their last card - military intervention. But the unanticipated number of boat people eating away at taxpayers' dollars in a state-side election year may be the decisive factor in that equation.

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