New Haitian exodus? Same old US treatment of refugees

Almost daily, pro- and antigovernment demonstrators flood the streets of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, disrupting business and forcing schools to close. Those calling for the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide show no sign of backing down: Since September, more than 50 people have died and scores more have been wounded.

In decades past, political conflict like this has sent waves of Haitian boat people onto the high seas seeking refuge. In the 1980s, bodies of Haitians escaping the Duvalier dictatorship in rickety boats washed up on south Florida's shores. In 1991, a military coup forced President Aristide into exile, and the US Coast Guard plucked nearly 70,000 refugees from small vessels in the ensuing three years. The majority then were taken to the US military base on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and eventually returned to Haiti.

Guantánamo may soon be seeing more action. Under what it characterizes as part of an ongoing contingency plan, the State Department has, in the past month, contacted a dozen nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) about running a refugee camp with as many as 50,000 beds. That's a startling estimate given that in all of 2003 fewer than 1,500 Haitians were interdicted.

While Bush officials say this is just routine preparation for mass migration and natural disasters in the Caribbean, it looks suspiciously like a new twist on an old US tactic: Making sure that Haiti's problems stay in Haiti and asylum-seekers never make it to US shores.

As Caribbean diplomats labor to broker a peace between Aristide and his opponents, the US is cynically battening the hatches against a possible refugee crisis landing on Florida's coast. America is the world leader in defending human rights, and it's shameful that US policy is geared more to keeping Haitians out than offering them the haven provided for refugees from most other countries.

NGO directors confirm that in late December, the State Department began polling them about their resources, capabilities, and staff in the Caribbean to run a large camp as early as this month. And these directors are nervous about their agencies' participation in a plan so obviously geared to barring Haitians from US shores, effectively denying them full legal rights as refugees.

The US has long had a double standard when it comes to Haitian refugees. And with the war on terror as an excuse, the Bush administration has raised the bar for Haitians looking for refuge in the US. When two large boatloads of Haitians arrived in south Florida in December 2001 and October 2002, the US implemented new measures aimed at deterring Haitians from ever attempting to flee their homeland. These measures drastically reduced the time refugees had to make their case and limited the ways they could exercise their rights to plead asylum. These changes, coupled with the "shout test" - which requires a migrant picked up at sea to literally cry out for help once aboard a US vessel even to have a shot at political asylum - have proved an effective deterrent.

Of the 1,490 Haitians interdicted last year, just one received refugee status. But that Haitian remains - along with four other compatriots who received refugee status in 2002 - at Guantánamo awaiting resettlement in a third country.

Last April, Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that Haitians posed a security risk to the US because Haiti was believed to be a jumping-off point for terrorists from places like Pakistan and Palestine. A Freedom of Information request by legal aid agencies turned up no supporting documentation for this claim. The US upped the ante again when, on Dec. 29, just days after the State Department contacted the NGOs about its contingency plan, it released a fact sheet that said Haitian migrants were a threat to US national security. Again, no explanation has been offered as the basis for this declaration.

It's morally wrong - if not xenophobic - to deny Haitian refugees their rights through tenuous association with terrorists who might use the Caribbean nation as a backdoor to the US. And it may be even harder now to defend the label of economic refugee because much of the violence in Haiti seems to be politically motivated, linked to demands for Aristide's ouster. While the majority of Haitians are desperately poor, the entire population is vulnerable to the chaos created by unruly mobs, a politicized police force, and a resounding lack of leadership.

There is also a legal component. Interdicting refugees fleeing political violence and refusing them entry to the US breaks international law.

"With the Haitians there has been some tendency by the US to use detention or deportation as a deterrent," says Joung-ah Ghedini of the UN High Commission for Refugees. "That, as a policy, is not acceptable according to the [UN] Convention of Refugees."

While the international community works to find a diplomatic solution to further bloodshed and a mass migration, it's understandable that the US is discussing a contingency plan.

A plan of action is welcome, says Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. But she'd be more supportive "if the plan was designed not to keep Haitians out, but rather offer them protection."

The US should continue to pursue a diplomatic solution that respects international law. But until then, Haitians should receive the same treatment granted asylum seekers from other countries, including admittance to the US to pursue asylum claims. The final plan should provide full and meaningful protection for Haitians seeking relief, rather than one that sequesters them and denies them due process.

Kathie Klarreich is a freelance writer who lived in Haiti for 10 years.

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