Haitians Granted US Asylum Stranded by Flight Embargo


UNDER the watchful eyes of armed private security guards, hundreds of Haitians play cards and dominoes and discuss daily politics on the grounds of a building in Haiti's capital.

The building houses a nongovernmental agency that has, out of necessity, switched its focus from development to refugees.

The group of mostly young, frustrated men say they are fleeing from the Haitian military. All of them have done what the US government has said and applied for political asylum here rather than risk their lives at sea trying to take boats to Florida.

The irony is that those who have been granted asylum, after enduring the long and bureaucratic application process in which they proved they face persecution, now have no way out. All commercial flights to and from Haiti were banned by the United Nations, at the urging of the US government. The last flight left July 30.

The group is part of an estimated 800 Haitians who have won asylum in the US but are effectively stranded in Haiti. The UN does allow charter flights off the island, but the US has refused to negotiate with Haiti's military rulers.

US officials announced a plan Sunday to transport Haitians who have been granted asylum in overland convoys to the Dominican Republic and then fly them to the US.

Jean, who asked not to be named, says military hit men have been after him because of his political activities since the 1991 coup, which ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When Jean witnessed the murder of another member of his grass-roots organization months ago, he decided to apply for asylum.

The US has granted him asylum status, but he is worried he will be targeted again before the US finds a way to get him out.

``I am fearful of the fascists who attack activists, who break into their homes, who rape women,'' he says. ``Even with political asylum, I'm in hiding because the military can use that as another reason to come after you.''

Connie Walsh, of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, in Port-Au-Prince, says the US has ignored the problem. ``The crisis needs to be addressed now,'' Ms. Walsh says. ``These people are granted refugee status because their life is in danger - so they need to be moved as quickly as possible. They have been targeted in the past and will continue to be targeted.''

The US has repeatedly flip-flopped on its asylum policy, maintaining since 1992 that Haitians should apply as political refugees at the US embassy in Port-au-Prince and announcing on July 5 of this year that refugees who leave Haiti by boat will not eligible for US resettlement. Two of the three processing centers have been the target of violent protests over the last few weeks.

IN Port-au-Prince, police attacked members standing in line outside the center. They abducted one woman, held her for several days without food, and warned she would be killed if she spoke to the media. Security outside the center has since increased, but applications are down.

US officials closed the center at the southern town of Les Cayes at the end of July because of demonstrations by local members of a paramilitary organization. They hope to reopen the center this week.

According to an employee of the Les Cayes center, many of those granted asylum have fled their homes recently because they feel their lives are in danger while they wait to leave. Because of their flight, the center has lost contact with many refugees, making it extremely difficult to contact them in case they are allowed to leave.

The US has another problem with 70 people granted asylum who are HIV positive. Some of them have been waiting more than a year and a half because of an ambiguous US policy. ``We've just completed our first three HIV-positive cases this week,'' Walsh says. ``It will be a test to see if there's yet another requirement we don't know about. Then we just have to wait to see if they will be included if and when the United States figures out how to get everyone out of here.''

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