WHETHER in converted fishing boats, newly tarred vessels, or rickety boards nailed together, Haitians are taking to the high seas today in greater numbers than they have since President Clinton took office. All over Haiti, boats are being loaded up in the middle of the night and set to sea by people searching for a better life.
The new exodus, more than 1,400 people in the last two weeks, is a direct response to Mr. Clinton's May 8 decree stating that the United States Coast Guard will halt automatic repatriation of refugees fleeing by boat. What many Haitians who are considering seeking asylum fail to understand, though, is that the amount of refugees accepted into the US - traditionally about 5 percent of those who flee - remains unchanged.
``The US has taken the same policy of nonrecognition and nonadmission and changed the venue,'' says Gretta Tovar Siebentritt of Human Rights Watch in Washington.
The US justifies their slim acceptance rate on the grounds that the applicants are economic, not political; the US also claims it has no evidence that refugees face danger upon repatriation. They do acknowledge, though, that boat trip organizers have been arrested.
``Haitian police routinely arrest 10 to 15 percent primarily for purposes of extortion,'' said a refugee rights advocate. ``They hold them, or free them, based on how much money they'll get.''
Now potential refugees can be arrested before they even get on the boats. On May 21 the de facto president, Emile Jonassaint, ordered the country's public prosecutor ``to take all measures to enforce the decree of Nov. 17, 1981, punishing the authors and accomplices of the crime of organizing clandestine voyages toward foreign countries.''
The decree has trickled out to local authorities across the countryside. The first large-scale arrest occurred two weeks ago, in a small town 45 miles south of the capital. According to witnesses, more than 200 people were waiting for a boat when armed soldiers descended upon them.
``They fired in the air, but I felt like it was aimed directly at me,'' said Esther Saintima, who sold her home in order to pay the $135 fee to board the boat. ``I ran so fast I was tripping over myself, tearing off my white shirt and skirt as I headed toward the mountains. Somebody gave me clothes the next morning so I could return home.''
The United Nations Civilian Mission said the soldiers arrested about 40 people. The authorities tied them together with a cord and forced them to march for several hours until they reached the military barracks in nearby Petit- Goave. Several victims said they were beaten.
The justice of the peace granted provisional liberty to 12 people pending the arrest of the alleged organizer, nicknamed Pompe, who is in hiding. The military has since freed the others.
A few days later, a few miles away, uniformed soldiers and armed civilians attacked another group preparing to leave. Some victims said they were badly beaten, but no one was arrested.
This week, a group of young men and women talk openly about their previous attempts to flee to the US. While many of their claims of persecution seem exaggerated, perhaps in hopes of being recognized as political refugees at a later date, they seem sincere when saying they will try to flee again. Some have already signed up for a boat widely known to be leaving on June 10. By then the new US policy may be in effect.
Refugees picked up by Coast Guard vessels will have a chance to plead their case on board one of two Ukrainian cruise ships (which together costs the US $64,000 a day). And on Wednesday, Jamaica announced it would provide facilities for processing Haitian refugees.
The new policy is hailed by most refugee advocates as a minimal first step. But they acknowledge that over the last two years, Haitians have learned what to say in interviews in order to make their case for political asylum.
The problem of how to improve the human rights situation here, which a large number of people are fleeing, still exists. Last year people were mainly subjected to arbitrary arrests and extortions. There was an average of four killings a month; this year it is 50.
``One of the reasons US policy is so screwed up is that there's a great deal of repression in this country that is not political persecution,'' said a person working with asylum seekers. ``It is repression that results from a political situation that uses random violence as a means of maintaining terror. Until that's changed, people will leave.''