Haitians Abroad May Return

As many as 120,000 Haitians in the US could head back once President Aristid is restored, triggering large flows from Caribbean nations.

YVONE BERGER, a Haitian journalist, came to the United States 18 months ago - after the military took power in Port-au-Prince. Shortly after ousted President Jean-Betrand Aristide returns to Haiti in mid-October, Mr. Berger intends to go back.

``If there is no trouble for one or two months [after President Aristide is restored], then I believe everyone will go back,'' he says.

Haitians themselves and refugee experts agree with Berger that a significant number of Haitians are likely to return to the Caribbean nation once they see signs of normality at home.

And, once the Haitian refugees in the US start to go back, it could also spark a return of hundreds of thousands of other Haitians now in other parts of the Caribbean, such as the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

``I would imagine the vast majority of those who came as refugees will want to go back. After all, they fled in fear,'' says Randall Robinson, the executive director of TransAfrica, a foreign policy advocacy organization in Washington.

Last week, US officials said those Haitians who were picked up at sea recently and taken to the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who want to go back, may start returning this week. Since the camp was opened at the end of June, 5,783 Haitians have returned by choice, officials say. However, 14,175 remained there.

It's likely many of the refugees at the Naval Base will want to return, says Ahpaly Coradin, policy advocate for the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, based in New York.

Want to work again

In July, Mr. Ahpaly visited Guantanamo and spoke directly to some 200 refugees.

``The strong impression I got was that many people were waiting for the chance to return to Haiti,'' he recalls. He found a strong desire by refugees to return to work to earn money to support their families.

This would be consistent with the Haitian experience three years ago when thousands of Haitians returned to the country when Aristide was elected.

Before the Haitians in Guantanamo go back, the US must insure there is decent security in Haiti, warns Elizabeth Ferris, executive director of Church World Services' immigration and refugee program.

In order for the refugees to feel comfortable with the security, she recommends Haitian access to reliable news media. And she is concerned that a large number of Haitians might be repatriated all at once, causing more economic and social pressure within Haiti.

Ferris cautions that the US must act carefully with its refugees - a total of 1,444 in 1993 - because of the large number of Haitians in Caribbean countries. There are an estimated 40,000-70,000 Haitians in the Bahamas and 1 million in the Dominican Republic. The Turks and Cacos Islands, with a resident population of 13,000, has 3,000 Haitians who have landed on the island's shores since the military coup.

``It is clear no one wants the Haitians - the other countries are all looking to the US for guidance so we have to be careful or we could see a ripple effect,'' says Ferris.

Haitians living in the US are more likely to be slow to return, at first.

Dr. Henry Frank, executive director of the Brooklyn-based Haitian Centers Council, an umbrella organization for Haitian groups, expects that over the next two years 7-10 percent of the Haitians in the US will return. This could mean as many as 120,000 Haitians returning to the Caribbean country from the US alone.

However, the percentage of returning Haitians may rise, if the experience of the El Salvador refugees is any indication.

Once a permanent cease fire was signed in that war-torn Central American country, former residents returned on month-long vacations to see if the country was safe and to test the waters. Ms. Ferris estimates about 30-40 percent of the 400,000 El Salvadorians in the US have returned to their native country. The attraction: their families, culture, and language.

``We think of the United States and its resources, but for undocumented immigrants, it is not a pleasant life here,'' she says.

Haitians already living in the US have mixed views about returning. On Nostrand Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Chlyonel Pierre, who has been in the US for fourteen years, says he won't return.

Citing ties in the US, he says: ``I've got a business here, a house here, my kids are in school and they are not finished,'' he states.

However, Jean Peters, a US resident for 25 years, says he would like to return to Haiti because he still has family there.

Back, with Aristide

And Joseph Paul, in the US for 18 years, declares he will go back if Aristide returns to govern the country. ``I can't tell you when, but I am going back, unless [military chief Raoul] Cedras is still there,'' he adds.

Some young Haitians in college here have the goal of returning to their country to help rebuild it. Elsie Poisson, a business management major at St. Johns University, says that after she graduates, ``I want to return to help out my country.''

Her idealism is shared by her half-sister, Sybyl Lewis, a junior at Queens College, who hopes to return so she can be ``a better representative of her government,'' eventually as an ambassador.

Such sentiments are not unusual among Haitians.

Ferris also says Cambodian refugees have attended US colleges and universities and then taken their skills back to help in the rebuilding of Cambodia. ``Repatriation can be a positive force,'' she says, ``but it has to be thought through beforehand.''

* Monitor intern Rachel Scheier contributed to this story.

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