LAST week the inconceivable happened. A United States Coast Guard vessel intercepted a boat carrying 15 Haitians, sank the boat, and returned the Haitians to Port-au-Prince, where they were handed over to the same Haitian military that has been killing with impunity for the last three months.
Inconceivable, yes; but it is also routine. This was the 24th Haitian boat to have been ``interdicted'' by US vessels since January. The 23rd left Haiti on Sept. 11, the day that Antoine Izmery, a prominent supporter of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was dragged from a church mass in Port-au-Prince and murdered. Nine Haitians drowned after the boat was interdicted by the Coast Guard cutter Mohawk. But this did not win a reprieve for the survivors. All were returned to Haiti; six were promptly arrested.
It was reported that the same fate befell all 15 of those returned last week. There is, at present, no real way to determine whether interdicted boat people face overt brutality on their return to Haiti. Observers for the United Nations and Organization of American States have been withdrawn, and while US diplomats in Port-au-Prince do meet returning boat people, they are in no position to follow up with in-depth monitoring. Certainly, when it comes to Haitians already in the US, Washington is taking no chances. Deportations have been quietly suspended. The forcible return of interdicted boat people, however, proceeds.
Americans have been nervously wondering whether to expect a repeat of 1980, when drowned Haitians were washed up on the shores of Florida. News reports are scanned for signs of large-scale boat building that might herald another exodus.
They are asking the wrong question. What matters is not the number of those leaving Haiti, but the current US policy that prevents them from even trying. This policy is totally inappropriate to the chaos in Haiti and at odds with President Clinton's commitment to a multilateral solution to the crisis. More than 66,000 Haitians have been interdicted on the high seas by US vessels since Sept. 23, 1981, when interdiction began. Since President Bush issued an executive order on May 24, 1992, they have been returned to Haiti without being given the chance even to apply for asylum.
This has encouraged the notion that the boat people are a US immigration issue, and also that the vast majority are ``economic'' migrants whose sole aim is to exploit lax US asylum procedures.
This is wrong on both counts. First, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the ``economic'' from the ``political'' motives of those who flee. The current killing is directed against the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, where Mr. Aristide enjoys support, and against peasant cooperatives in rural areas. According to recent reports from the UN Development Program and the Pan American Health Organization, military corruption has reduced tax revenues, destroyed public services, exacerbated malnutrition, and even spread AIDS.
Second, interdiction has dangerous implications for international law. It clearly violates three major rights that are universally recognized and were vociferously championed by the US in the cold war: the right to leave one's country, the right to seek asylum, and the right not to be returned to possible persecution.
It also sets a dangerous precedent. Earlier this year the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned the Clinton administration that Bangladesh, Malaysia, and India have all referred to US interdiction, raising fears that they too could try to deter asylum-seekers.
Haitians can apply for refugee status in the US at three locations in Haiti. But this program is floundering at precisely the time when it is most needed. As of Oct. 7, only 6 percent of the 8,074 cases adjudicated had been approved. This has prompted a protest from the US Catholic Conference, which has been processing applications in Cap-Haitien on behalf of the US government.
Two of the three processing centers (in Cap-Haitien and Les Cayes) are closed because of security concerns, and the number of applicants in Port-au-Prince has fallen below 100 a week, compared with more than a thousand in August. Known supporters of Aristide are mostly in hiding, probably too frightened to be seen applying for refugee resettlement to the US.
It is time for a change of policy. Conditions in Haiti are fast approaching those of the weeks after the Sept. 30, 1991, coup, when thousands took to the boats. If sanctions begin to bite, Haitians could try to leave in very large numbers. But they would have nowhere to go.
In his election campaign, Clinton described interdiction as a ``callous response to a terrible human tragedy.'' He should follow his instincts. Interdiction should be suspended. All warships enforcing the UN embargo of Haiti should be instructed to rescue all Haitians in distress at sea and disembark them at the next port of call, in line with international law.
Instead of being treated as a unilateral concern of the US, the forced migration of Haitians should be brought into the multilateral program for Haiti's recovery. The migration must not undercut efforts to find a political solution. Fewer Haitians left during the nine months of 1991 when Aristide was in office than at any other time since 1981. This confirms that a restoration of democracy would go a long way toward addressing the root causes of poverty and repression that lie behind the exodus.
But if the Governors Island Accord collapses, the US should take the lead in pushing for a regional solution. It could start by exploring an offer from the UNHCR to help set up regional centers where Haitians could be given temporary protection until constitutional government is restored. Any Haitians who reach the US should be given the temporary protected status currently given to Liberians, Somalis, and Bosnians.
It is hoped that the international community will face down the Haitian bullies and Aristide will return. Certainly, in the current emergency, the right to seek asylum must be reaffirmed. There is more at stake than Haiti. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.