To Return or Not to Return: The Dilemma of Haiti's Refugees

While the US presence has led some to go home, others await proof of a new future

TITO ALOURDES is one of Haiti's boat people. Last week she stepped off the United States Coast Guard Cutter Durable back onto Haitian soil. She was heading for her hometown to be reunited with her eight-year-old son.

``I know that democracy has returned,'' she says from the back of a US Army truck. ``It's a good time to return to Haiti.''

The Coast Guard is bringing home some of the Haitians who drifted into its arms in recent months in the attempt to flee to the United States. The first contingent - 221 Haitians - arrived Sept. 26. Ms. Alourdes was part of a second group of 142 who volunteered to return from the holding center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. As of yesterday, 1,984 Haitians had been repatriated, and the Coast Guard expects to continue returning about 500 a day.

Thousands have fled Haiti in the last decade because of repression and increasing economic hardship. The still unanswered question is: How many will come back? Although many of the boat people represented the most desperate of the population, many of Haiti's most educated have also departed.

``A lot of people with skills left the country,'' says Richard Millett, senior research associate at the North-South Center of the University of Miami. Without skilled people, Haiti will have a hard time rebuilding.

Bob Vrigneau, like Alourdes, took to the sea when things got tough. He had been a driver for a US-Japanese joint venture making children's clothes. But when the company closed in 1992 because of the international embargo, Mr. Vrigneau got work as a sailor on a Haitian ship. For two years, he has plied the waterways between Central America and the Caribbean.

``I love Haiti,'' he says. ``I would like to go back as soon as possible, [but] I don't want to leave my job.'' Without the promise of work and stability at home, Vrigneau will probably stay on his ship.

No one knows how many have left Haiti in recent years. Some estimate that 2 million refugees are living in other Caribbean nations; others have gone to Latin America and Canada. The most popular destination is the United States, where some 1.2 million Haitians now live; more than 159,000 have been admitted as immigrants since 1988. In December 1993, nearly 14,000 applications for asylum were pending.

The United Nations embargo, aimed at pushing the military regime from power, instead spurred more Haitians to flee. Since January, the US Coast Guard has picked up more than 25,000 fleeing by boats and jerry-rigged rafts. The US, unwilling to accept more people, sent some 11,000 back to Haiti and more than 14,000 to Guantanamo Bay.

Now that the embargo is ending, Vrigneau is optimistic that more of his compatriots will return. ``If they have food and they have a job, they will go back,'' he says.

Henry Frank, executive director of the Haitian Centers Council in Brooklyn expects that 7 to 10 percent of Haitians in the US will return in the next two years.

Mr. Millett is more skeptical. Most often, those who leave never go back, he says. ``This is not just Haitians.'' The loss of trained people affects almost all underdeveloped countries. The trend is doubly powerful in nations, like Haiti, with a history of instability.

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