After near riots, US Embassy in Haiti asks Haitians to stay away

The US Embassy in the Haiti capital of Port-au-Prince has been overwhelmed by Haitians seeking help or a way out of their troubled country. The US ambassador says he understands the humanitarian need, but stresses the embassy is focusing on US citizens and their relatives.

Julie Jacobson/AP
A crowd gathers outside the US Embassy hoping for a chance at attaining travel visas to enter the United States in Port-au- Prince, Haiti, Jan. 22.

After some near-riot moments outside the United States Embassy here earlier this week, officials decided it was time to act.

With thousands of desperate Haitians looking for a way out of a country devastated by the Jan. 12 earthquake, the US embassy on the city’s northern edge – like the French and Canadian embassies, though to lesser degrees – became a prime destination for would-be refugees.

The US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merton, got on Haitian radio – the medium of choice for most Haitians seeking information after the quake – to spread the word: The US is providing unprecedented amounts of assistance to Haiti, he said, but the embassy is only serving the legitimate needs of American citizens.

Information was placed in newspapers. Loudspeakers were used to spread the word through the crowds of thousands lining up outside the embassy that Haitians’ needs would not be attended to at the embassy. The result is that while the crowds continue to show up every day they are considerably smaller – and more manageable – than a few days ago.

“Above everything else we wanted to make sure no one got hurt,” says Gordon Duguid, the US State Department's deputy spokesman, who traveled to Port-au-Prince with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the Saturday after the quake and stayed on. “But as always in a situation like this, our first job is to serve American citizens.”

That means that a non-American relative of an American citizen's child may be granted a visa to accompany the child to the US, but Haitians in dire straits after the quake – even those with family in the US – won’t.

Officials say the number of people soliciting embassy assistance went up by a factor of 10 after the quake – and then doubled again on Monday. The prospect of ever-mushrooming numbers of people mobilized the public information staff into action.

The crowds may have fallen off but that does not mean that many of the people in line don't have a legitimate reason to be there. “We don’t want to say anything seeming to minimize what the Haitian people are going through,” says Mr. Duguid. “But inevitably there will be people who will try to slip through some crack.”

Dorcet Wilfrid and Jules-Bernard Gabriel aren’t trying to dupe their way into the US, but their unfortunately now-common predicament – no shelter, no work -- is unlikely to be enough to get them to Miami. The two friends sold sodas on the streets in Petit Goave, west of Port-au-Prince, until the earthquake hit: each lost his house, and people stole their soda stock. So they hopped a tap-tap – a Haitian bus – destination US embassy.

“We’re going to wait and see if someone comes out here to hear us,” says Mr. Wilfrid. “We’re hoping our very bad situation will warrant some sort of privilege.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, Aly Kerby is waiting to see if a family member is granted a visa to accompany his three-year-old son – an American citizen – back to the US.

“Everybody is trying either to leave, or if not that, then to get some assistance,” says Mr. Kerby, who is staying in Haiti to try to get his shoe-importing business up-an-running again.”Most people know they can’t just go to the US, but when you’re desperate you will try.”

Asked about the public information blitz the embassy undertook to avoid Haitians wasting their time on line, Kerby says it’s a good idea. “But even better would be to communicate some sense of security and of having a future here to the people of Haiti,” he says. “Then people wouldn’t be focused on leaving.”

For more of our Haiti coverage, visit the Haiti topic page.

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