Haitian Refugees in Cuba Need an End to Isolation
DO you feel safe here at Guantanamo?'' I asked a man sitting in the group slated for ``voluntary repatriation'' in a large aircraft hanger on the United States naval base in Cuba. He had chosen to return to Haiti rather than remain in the safe-haven camp set up by the US military.Skip to next paragraph
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``Yes,'' he responded.
``Do you feel that it is safe for you in Haiti?''
``No.'' Two of his brothers had been killed by the military back in Port-au-Prince.
``Then why go back?''
``I haven't spoken to my wife and children. They don't know if I am dead or alive. I must go back.''
The US no longer is forcibly repatriating Haitian boat people, as it did automatically without a hearing for 25 months, until the policy was changed last month. To its credit, the US military has built a camp at Guantanamo where the refugees generally feel secure. I was among the first group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives allowed on the base to observe conditions. For the most part the military appears to have succeeded in meeting the basic needs of food, water, shelter, sanitation, medicine, and clothing.
Feeling of isolation
Yet the refugees are cut off from the outside world: no letters, no calls, no pencils, no paper. No method has been established even for communicating among the camps in Guantanamo itself. Rumors abound. Life-and-death decisions about whether to stay or go are colored by erroneous information and ignorance, about the situation back home as well as in the camp.
Another man in the ``voluntary repatriation'' group told me, ``I can die slowly here or quickly in Haiti.'' He believed that 40 refugees had died at the camp. In fact only four deaths have been recorded. But families are not allowed to visit sick relatives in the transportable hospital. More than 30 patients are being held in isolation; the refugees saw them leave at sick call and not return, and drew their own conclusions.
Guantanamo was set up as a short-term transit camp. Tents were hurriedly placed on tarmacs, razor concertina wire was used to create perimeters. More than 16,000 people appeared within a few weeks. Whether other safe-haven camps in the region come on line or not, Guantanamo must now be reoriented to become a genuine safe-haven camp.
The arrival of NGOs has been welcome. A refugee leader said, ``We have nothing to keep us occupied.'' Meeting this need is not only a humanitarian requirement, it maintains order; a bored and frustrated population in a closed camp can turn ugly. A hunger strike began the day we arrived.
To the extent possible, the refugees should be encouraged to manage their own lives. Having elected camp leadership is a good first step that the authorities have already facilitated. Common shelters and recreational space need to be established where refugees can help each other. Classes, especially in basic literacy, will go a long way toward helping prepare the refugees for rebuilding their country when they return.
The US has never run a temporary safe-haven refugee camp before. And this one is different from all others. Most refugees cross a border or wash up on a shore, where they can then ask for asylum.