US Loses Its Bearings on Refugees

The president should stop forced repatriation of Haitians and persuade the British to do likewise with Vietnamese

THE United States policy of forcibly returning fleeing Haitians is reprehensible in its own right, but also undermines US leadership on refugees worldwide.Since World War II and under Republican and Democratic presidents, the US has long prided itself on setting the international standards for protection and care of refugees and pushing the United Nations and national governments to keep to those standards. Screening Haitians to determine political refugee status aboard bobbing Coast Guard boats is insufficient. The minimal need is for screening on land, with an appeal process and with full access for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Given current conditions, nobody should be forced back to Haiti. Even if political conditions improve, a UNHCR monitoring process must be in place in advance. There is another approach to Haiti which one hopes the US and the international community will consider. Before we simply acquiesce indefinitely to a government of Haiti that is driving out the general population, the right of humanitarian intervention should be exercised. Dealing with the problem at its source - beyond the embargo which is operating to drive out more Haitians - is imperative. Since 1975, the US has fought hard to preserve refuge in Southeast Asia for Indochinese refugees. The British have announced their intention to return Vietnamese boat people screened out in Hong Kong. In so doing, they threaten to pull the plug on a regional asylum framework which has been in place for 16 years and is governed by a UN agreement. What the US is doing with the Haitians is as egregious as British action to force back Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. Voluntary repatriation is on the rise from Hong Kong; in November only seven Vietnamese boat people arrived there. This "heavy" burden has been the rationale for violating a fundamental principle of refugee protection: Asylum seekers should not be forced back when voluntary return is working. This is certainly not a proud chapter for Britain or Hong Kong. The US is strangely passive in the face of this British move. It is easy to imagine that President Bush will be reluctant to press Prime Minister John Major. The policy of forcing back Haitians is corroding the ability of the US to stand up for the rights of refugees elsewhere. Distinctions can be drawn between Haiti and Vietnam. The security apparatus in Vietnam seems to be more systematically repressive than Haiti's, although the current level of violence is certainly higher in Haiti. But the international and media perceptions is that the US has given up on maintaining safe haven and protection for the world's refugees and displaced. Other governments will soon be saying that because the US forcibly returns Haitians, their governments can be excused for forcing back others. If the US is to maintain its ability to protest and to protect refugees around the world, the forced return of Haitians must be suspended and the president should persuade Mr. Major to hold off on further forced return of Vietnamese from Hong Kong.

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