AS the Clinton administration struggles to control a boat-borne flood of Haitian refugees, pressure from within the United States to oust Haiti's military rulers via an invasion continues to rise.
By deciding to send refugees to safe havens in Panama and other nations in the region, the administration may have started a countdown ticking. If the havens fill up in six months while Haitians continue to take to the sea, what happens then?
Will an invasion of Haiti by the US 82nd Airborne look like the easiest solution?
Randall Robinson, president of the private group TransAfrica and a prominent voice pushing for stronger action, judges that at current rates the new safe havens could fill up as early as the end of July.
``Sanctions will not work in time to resolve this problem,'' Mr. Robinson said Wednesday. ``We now have no option but to undertake a hemispheric intervention under the aegis of the United Nations.''
Robinson said he had ``reason to believe'' that the administration is seriously considering such an action. Indeed, US swords continue to rattle loudly: The dispatch of 2,000 Marines to float off Haiti's coast only days after they had returned from a Mediterranean tour is a foreboding event, considering that the Navy has worked hard to limit the time Marine troops spend at sea. US Army Rangers and Navy Seals have reportedly been practicing airfield seizure to make sure they are ready for a possible attempt to take the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
But military action is far from a foregone conclusion. Clinton's special adviser on Haiti, William Gray, says simply that he does not expect the Haitian junta to still be in power in six months. While the Congressional Black Caucus and its allies call for stronger action, other political voices within the US overtly oppose reinstalling ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the point of US bayonets.
Dole's bitter remarks
Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, in a bitter statement, accused Clinton of ``beating war drums'' for intervention in Haiti and said invasion would be a ``grave mistake.'' If there is a Haitian refugee crisis, said Mr. Dole, it is one of the US's own making. ``By chartering cruise ships for immigration processing and tightening economic sanctions, US policy has made fleeing by sea an attractive policy for Haitians,'' said Dole.
In recent days, the Clinton administration has actually been working to try to make fleeing by sea a less attractive option. Whether US officials have succeeded is not entirely clear.
On the one hand, Haitians picked up at sea by US ships will not be eligible for resettlement in the US proper, whether they qualify for political asylum or not. They will instead be shipped to a refugee camp in Panama or some other nearby nation.
On the other hand, it will likely be relatively easy for Haitian boat people to gain safe-haven access. That is because Haitians screened at sea will not have to meet the tough standard required for asylum status - a ``well founded'' fear of persecution - to avoid repatriation to Haiti. Instead, they will simply have to prove that their fears of violence are ``credible''.
Under the tougher standard, around 30 percent of boat people had been deemed eligible for asylum status in recent weeks. That was a sharp increase over the 5 percent or so average of the past year.
Flood of people seen
The newly permissive policy will undoubtedly result in a flood of people entering haven camps. ``It is not an arrangement that should be sustained for very long,'' says Arthur Helton, director of migration programs at the Open Society Institute in New York.
Haitians who apply at US refugee processing stations within their country will still be eligible for US resettlement. But the paradoxical nature of in-country application, which leaves an applicant vulnerable during the approval process, renders it an inadequate safety valve, critics say.
``That is a frightening route for those people,'' says Bill Schulz, the New York-based head of Amnesty International U.S.A. He says it is not a violation of international law for the US to shunt boat people off to adequate safe havens in other countries. But ``our concern is that Haitian refugees be treated like refugees from other countries, such as Cuba,'' he says.
Cuban refugees are welcomed into the US with open arms, without having to prove persecution fears.