Haitian Refugees Caught Between Crackdown and Tougher US Policy

IT is 2:00 a.m. and the 45 or so would-be refugees crammed aboard the 17-foot wooden sailboat waiting to set off are arguing over which of them should get out in order to lighten the dangerously overloaded vessel.

The organizer gradually persuades eight people to go ashore - those who have contributed little or nothing to a voyage costing an average of $90 a person. The Grace-a-Dieu (Thank God) finally tacks away into the night, still perilously low in the water.

Twenty-four hours later it limps back into its home port after an encounter some 40 miles out to sea with a United States Coast Guard cutter that refused to pick refugees up and just waited until they turned back.

"The ship flashed a red light at us, but it stayed far away and did not come any closer," says Iderica, a student from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. "We wanted to be picked up, but by then it was too rough to approach the ship or go any further, so we had to give up."

The incident highlights one more tragic twist in the refugee exodus that started after elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's military ouster on Sept. 30 and has soared in the past few weeks to a total of more than 34,000.

None of the 1,000 or so refugees waiting this week to catch boats in the handful of fishing villages along the shores of this remote bay, 120 miles west of the capital, seemed to be aware of the latest change in US policy.

Last Sunday, the Bush administration announced that all boat people henceforth picked up by the US Coast Guard flotilla waiting outside Haitian waters will be immediately repatriated.

In the past, they were first taken to the now overcrowded processing center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where immigration officials were admitting about a quarter of them to pursue political asylum claims in the US, and repatriating the rest.

Refugees on Cayemite Bay reacted with disbelief when reporters told them of the new policy, which has coincided with a new military crackdown on dissent that left an estimated toll of 15 dead in the capital in the first three days of last week.

"It doesn't make any difference, I'm still going to go," says Evans, a student from a Port-au-Prince secondary school where soldiers beat and arrested suspected pro-Aristide activists on May 15. "I don't see how they can repatriate me if they are sincere."

About 10 sailboats of various sizes were expected to leave from Cayemite Bay this week.

Many of those hoping to be aboard would probably have failed screening in Guantanamo because their chief motive is to escape unemployment and hunger that is being fueled by an international embargo designed to press for Aristide's reinstatement.

But many others such as Ilsom, a former driver and bodyguard for one of Aristide's leading political allies, Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, seemed to have a strong case for political asylum.

"We are leaving not because we are hungry, but because we are marked men.... We want to go to Miami for security and we will come back as soon as our president does," he says.

Ilsom was leading a group of 10 fellow members of the main pro-Aristide political alliance who, like him, all had believable tales of run-ins and close shaves with soldiers or political thugs that meant their lives were in danger.

Etienne, a working-class community leader from Port-au-Prince clutching a fat bundle of documents that testify to a long political past, says he had spent the last eight months in hiding in various cities before coming to Cayemite Bay.

"We are like the Wandering Jew; our only option now is to take to the sea," he says.

The number of refugees is rocketing, to judge by the number intercepted by the US Coast Guard in the last month, almost half the total for the preceding seven months.

A local businessman, who requested anonymity, attributed the surge to the onset of favorable weather conditions, which came as usual in mid-May, and the end of the offshore fishing season, which has released boats for sale as refugee vessels.

Catering to the boat people has given a fillip to the local economy in which the main export, frozen lobsters, abruptly ended when the embargo took effect in November.

The price of boats has more than doubled. At least one boat can be seen in the process of construction in every village. And many fishermen and local businessmen are acting as middlemen in organizing departures.

The local military, based at the town of Pestel, is also cashing in, regularly touring the villages around the bay in dugouts to harass visitors under threat of arrest, many refugees allege.

"Two soldiers came here last week, fired shots in the air, grabbed eight members of my group and took a total of $90 from them," says Wilbert, a primary school teacher from the capital. "The rest of us managed to hide in the woods."

When the US government policy change sinks in, the exodus will probably fall off, at least initially, a local lobster exporter predicts.

"Most of the boats have been going out to meet the US Coast Guard and get taken to Guantanamo, because everyone expected to be accepted as refugees," he says.

"That made it easier, because it usually takes only a day or two to meet up with the Coast Guard, and it takes at least 10 days or two weeks to reach Miami," he adds.

The price for each refugee will now rise, he argues, because the boats will have to be less crowded and provisioned for a longer trip, such as that around Cuba's western tip, in order to dodge the waiting ships.

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