Refugees in the '90s

When is it safe to go home?

THE dramatic changes that occurred at the end of the '80s - democratization of several East European regimes; the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan; the end of the Iran-Iraq war, to name a few - have given rise to expectations as we enter the 1990s that millions of refugees will now return home. This sense of expectation has recently been given a further boost in the United States with positive developments in both Nicaragua and Haiti, from which tens of thousands of asylum seekers have tried to enter the US in the past decade. One can almost hear the sigh of relief emanating from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The sigh of relief about political changes and the hope for refugee repatriation is nearly as audible from other immigration authorities throughout the world. Pakistan and Iran have hosted nearly 6 million Afghan refugees for most of the 1980s, and have waited anxiously since peace accords were signed two years ago for these huge refugee populations to return. Thailand and her ASEAN partners have been receiving Vietnamese boat people since 1975; more than 6,000 pushbacks of Vietnamese boat people by Malaysia since May 1989 demonstrate clearly that the welcome mat has long since been withdrawn. The recent elections in Burma gave Thailand the excuse to round up and forcibly return more than 1,500 refugees on June 7. A Thai army colonel said that another 10,000 would be repatriated soon.

As many as 1 million Iranians, many of them young men fleeing the Ayatollah's army, have been residing as an unregistered, undocumented underclass in Turkey, and tens of thousands of other Iranians and Iraqis are scattered in exile throughout the world, although the war between those two countries has been over for nearly two years. Western European countries have hosted hundreds of thousands of East Europeans during the cold war, which has now been declared over; large numbers of more culturally and racially diverse refugees from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa further complicate the European asylum picture.

In many host countries, there appears to be growing impatience that it is time for these displaced foreigners to go home. The dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall has come to symbolize a quick fix to conditions that have been chronically oppressive for years. The reality, however, is that trust is not restored overnight. For people who have lived in fear, for those who have experienced loss and persecution, a sense of personal security comes in small stages.

The internationally recognized definition of a refugee (incorporated also in US law) is a person ``with a well-founded fear of persecution'' on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The framers of international refugee law appreciated the subjective element of fear in the refugee psyche. Our own Supreme Court in 1987 affirmed that the refugee definition ``obviously ... turn[s] to some extent on the subjective mental state of the alien.'' The fear cannot be a delusion; it must, says the law, be ``well-founded.'' So the question is: When are a refugee's fears no longer well founded?

The open elections in Nicaragua certainly were a welcome sign that a decade of turmoil could come to an end. But in the months since the election, that country has continued to be rocked by politically motivated strikes and threats and counterthreats from armed factions. The most recent news is good; this past weekend, most of the contras turned in their arms. But do we have sufficient assurances that the see-saw of events has, in fact, stabilized?

The month following the naming of a civilian president in Haiti saw a sharp escalation in political killings, with renegade soldiers roaming the streets, terrorizing and plundering with impunity. Mrs. Pascal-Troillot, the new president, has noted that political violence has escalated with the naming of an electoral commission. With past experience as a guide, it is likely that current and former elements from the army, as well as paramilitary groups, such as remnants of the dreaded Tontons Macoute, will try to derail elections, tentatively scheduled for September.

In the meantime, the US keeps interdicting Haitian boats on the high seas and routinely returning asylum seekers to Haiti against their will. Their pleas for refuge are simply ignored by INS officers aboard the Coast Guard vessels who are supposed to determine if the Haitians have enough of a claim to warrant an asylum hearing in the US.

Last year, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees presented a congressional panel with sworn affidavits from Haitians who had been interdicted and returned to Haiti. Among them, a man identified as ``Jean L.,'' who was actively involved in organizing demonstrations against one of the revolving-door regimes that have characterized Haitian politics since the Duvalier dictatorship ended. He testified that he had been arrested, subsequently released, and after learning that the soldiers were after him again, went into hiding. During that time, soldiers ransacked his home and raped his common-law wife. ``Finally, after all our struggle to change the country and the prospect that the authorities could murder us at any time,'' he testified, ``we decided to risk our lives at sea.'' His boat was intercepted, however. He said, ``The [US] immigration inspector who interviewed me declared that since there was a new government, they will return me to Haiti. They refused to admit that I had good reasons to leave Haiti and that death threats were still hanging on my head.''

It clearly was not safe for that man to return. The government in power at the time was itself overthrown, and anarchy and violence have prevailed since then. Although changes had occurred in Haiti, stability had not been attained. The hope on the part of US authorities that all would be well was projected as though it was a reality. However, the mental state of relevance to asylum adjudication is not that of the adjudicator, but of the person seeking asylum. A reasonable person in the position of Jean L. could still well have reasonable fears about his safety, despite changes occurring in his homeland. The INS examiner failed to try to understand those fears.

That failure was not just a one-time aberration of a single INS officer who may have been prejudiced or insensitive. It stemmed from a pattern of bias dating back to the beginning of the interdiction operation in 1981. Since that time, 21,361 Haitians have been interdicted. Of that number, only eight persons have been allowed ashore to pursue their asylum claims.

We turned them back under Duvalier; we turned them back under Namphy, Avril, and the rest. Our government plays the curious game of citing human rights ``improvements'' in Haiti with each successive regime, rationalizing our deafness to the pleas of Haiti's downtrodden.

The US does not possess a crystal ball predicting future political persecution. Our government needs to be less arrogant in deciding when it is safe for somebody else to go home. We need to listen. We need to care. We need to develop a spirit of generosity that gives the benefit of the doubt to asylum seekers from countries characterized by instability and political violence.

We may never know the blood already on our hands from those summarily returned to Haiti by our government. Let us be patient, allow the dust to settle, and, when it is truly safe, help refugees to return home in dignity and of their own volition.

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