Lack of a US-Haiti Pact On Boat People Clouds Their Fate on the Seas

THE deployment of United States soldiers to Haiti last September managed to stanch the flow of tens of thousands of Haitians headed for Miami on overcrowded, rickety boats in the last three years. The US Coast Guard picked up only one boat with 126 Haitians in the last six months.

But US and Haitian officials are concerned that another mass boat launch could take place. Although President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was reinstated last fall, Haiti's chronic economic and social problems remain unresolved. And despite the presence of United Nations troops, who took over the mission in March, instability continues.

''There's always this nagging fear that the problem will start up again because public safety is still a problem here,'' says Nicole Gregoire, head of the repatriation division of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The US is concerned about another exodus because an accord that gave the US authority to repatriate Haitian boat people picked up on the high seas has expired. The US would like a new accord.

But the Haitian government has said it will not sign an accord that calls for forced repatriation. The 1981 accord was originally signed between then-Haitian President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier and the Reagan administration.

The agreement authorized the US Coast Guard to repatriate Haitians found in national or international waters, though it required the US to screen for claims of persecution.

FOR years, human rights advocates have called the forced repatriation policy ''inhumane and racist.'' The US has justified the action by calling the refugees economic rather than political migrants. But US officials have been unable to explain why, with the economic situation as dire as it was last year, there are virtually no more people risking their lives on the high seas.

Despite the accord's expiration, the Haitian government has little recourse to prevent the US from continuing the 14-year-old repatriation policy.

''We're an occupied country, what can we do to stop [the US]?'' says one Haitian government employee. ''Go down to the docks with guns and declare war?''

''Just because we don't agree with [the policy] doesn't mean we can prevent it,'' agrees Foreign Affairs Minister Claudette Werleigh. ''I don't think it's possible [to] ... have an accord with the US today because our positions are diametrically opposite,'' she continues. ''We'll negotiate only on the basis of voluntary repatriation.''

The US Embassy here denies there is friction between the two governments or that the US is doing anything illegal.

''The legal basis is that we inform the Haitian government, and our policy is to directly repatriate Haitians intercepted at sea,'' says embassy spokesman Stan Schrager.

''We've made our views known that we would be interested in exploring the possibility of a new repatriation agreement,'' he acknowledges. ''There are no negotiations under way now, and there's been no formal entreaty made to the Haitian government.''

Privately, US officials admit they do not need a legal accord to repatriate refugees, though it would be simpler if they had one.

''We do have the same objectives,'' says a Haitian government official close to the refugee issue. ''But does the US understand that we are not up for bargaining about this?''

It is illegal for the US to pick up Haitians in Haiti's territorial water. ''If [the US] doesn't want refugees leaving, it should supply the promised aid money,'' he adds, referring to past US financial promises to aid development in Haiti so that people would be less inclined to leave.

THE government is also looking for funds to help repatriate refugees living abroad illegally, who want to return now that Aristide has been reinstated. For example, about 25,000 Haitians fled to the Dominican Republic from 1991 to 1994.

''We know our government has to take responsibility for those who are in exile,'' says Frederick Thelusma, Cabinet chief for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. ''But we want to have a determined number of people voluntarily repatriate on a schedule. We are just asking for time to get our infrastructure set up.''

If not, there could be a repeat of the 1991 crisis, he adds. That year, the Dominican Republic decided to expel 40,000 illegal Haitians. The influx was profoundly destabilizing to Haiti. ''If they return and we can't take care of their economic and social needs, they are candidates to take to the seas again,'' Mr. Thelusma adds.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 Haitians took to the high seas during Aristide's three years in exile. Since October, the Clinton administration has forcibly returned 6,000 Haitians who were placed in a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just 500 have returned voluntarily. The only remaining Haitians are 240 unaccompanied Haitian children. Their fate has not yet been determined.

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