DO you feel safe here at Guantanamo?'' I asked a man sitting in the group slated for ``voluntary repatriation'' in a large aircraft hanger on the United States naval base in Cuba. He had chosen to return to Haiti rather than remain in the safe-haven camp set up by the US military.
``Yes,'' he responded.
``Do you feel that it is safe for you in Haiti?''
``No.'' Two of his brothers had been killed by the military back in Port-au-Prince.
``Then why go back?''
``I haven't spoken to my wife and children. They don't know if I am dead or alive. I must go back.''
The US no longer is forcibly repatriating Haitian boat people, as it did automatically without a hearing for 25 months, until the policy was changed last month. To its credit, the US military has built a camp at Guantanamo where the refugees generally feel secure. I was among the first group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives allowed on the base to observe conditions. For the most part the military appears to have succeeded in meeting the basic needs of food, water, shelter, sanitation, medicine, and clothing.
Feeling of isolation
Yet the refugees are cut off from the outside world: no letters, no calls, no pencils, no paper. No method has been established even for communicating among the camps in Guantanamo itself. Rumors abound. Life-and-death decisions about whether to stay or go are colored by erroneous information and ignorance, about the situation back home as well as in the camp.
Another man in the ``voluntary repatriation'' group told me, ``I can die slowly here or quickly in Haiti.'' He believed that 40 refugees had died at the camp. In fact only four deaths have been recorded. But families are not allowed to visit sick relatives in the transportable hospital. More than 30 patients are being held in isolation; the refugees saw them leave at sick call and not return, and drew their own conclusions.
Guantanamo was set up as a short-term transit camp. Tents were hurriedly placed on tarmacs, razor concertina wire was used to create perimeters. More than 16,000 people appeared within a few weeks. Whether other safe-haven camps in the region come on line or not, Guantanamo must now be reoriented to become a genuine safe-haven camp.
The arrival of NGOs has been welcome. A refugee leader said, ``We have nothing to keep us occupied.'' Meeting this need is not only a humanitarian requirement, it maintains order; a bored and frustrated population in a closed camp can turn ugly. A hunger strike began the day we arrived.
To the extent possible, the refugees should be encouraged to manage their own lives. Having elected camp leadership is a good first step that the authorities have already facilitated. Common shelters and recreational space need to be established where refugees can help each other. Classes, especially in basic literacy, will go a long way toward helping prepare the refugees for rebuilding their country when they return.
The US has never run a temporary safe-haven refugee camp before. And this one is different from all others. Most refugees cross a border or wash up on a shore, where they can then ask for asylum.
In the case of the Haitians, the US Coast Guard has gone into international waters to intercept their boats, sink them, and take the passengers into custody. Once in US custody, the refugees are not allowed to seek asylum in the US. They can either stay in a closed camp for an indefinite time or they can go home.
The expulsion of United Nations/Organization of American States human rights monitors, the declaration of a state of emergency, the beating and arrest of Haitians waiting in line for refugee processing in Port-au-Prince, and the continued deterioration of human rights in Haiti make it imperative that the US authorities at Guantanamo not promote voluntary repatriation.
These same circumstances make it equally imperative that the US military and civilian authorities take all necessary steps to improve camp conditions so that refugees do not feel compelled to choose between the risks of return and unbearable isolation.
The safe-haven policy has its flaws. The interdiction operation has, at best, a shaky foundation in international law. The treatment of Haitians, when compared to Cubans and other refugee groups, is discriminatory. But this policy is such a vast improvement over the US government's previous Haitian refugee policies that it deserves a chance to succeed. The bottom line is that it provides broad protection to those who flee. Under President Clinton's previous policy of conducting refugee screening aboard a ship at Kingston, Jamaica, a fortunate one-third of the refugee claimants were resettled in the US, but two-thirds were returned to Haiti. Based on a one-hour interview aboard a ship, either alternative was inappropriately final.
``Safe haven'' means temporary asylum pending a permanent solution. As long as the situation in Haiti remains uncertain, this is appropriate. At some future point, however, if it is not possible for refugees to go home, resettlement in the US and other countries might need to be considered as a permanent solution.
But that is not the refugees' preferred choice. As I interviewed several refugees in a tent, a large crowd gathered, straining to hear. But on one question they could not remain silent. I asked, ``If Aristide returns to Haiti, if democracy is restored, will you want to go back?'' The whole tent shook as the crowd cheered and stomped and shouted its response - ``Yes!''
Voluntary repatriation is their choice. But it must come when it is safe to return. Now is not the time. Of course, no refugee should be forced to stay at Guantanamo if he or she really wants to go home. But the decision needs to be fully informed. It is unconscionable that such a decision should be made based on camp conditions and isolation. These are manageable, correctable problems. They need to be solved immediately. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.