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PERSPECTIVE ON HAITIAN REFUGEES : No Haven for the Poor and Black : Terror is driving thousands to risk their lives at sea; our government's response is unlawful and inhumane.

December 01, 1991|PETER A. SCHEY and TODD HOWLAND | Peter A. Schey is executive director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Todd Howland is legal director of El Rescate in Los Angeles

In the past two months, countless men, women and children fleeing Haiti have drowned in the wind-churned waters of the Caribbean, the victims of brutal despots in their small island nation and U.S. policy gone awry. Another 2,000 of their countrymen, braving 900 miles of ocean in overcrowded, rickety sailboats, have been stopped by U.S. Coast Guard vessels. Until a federal judge intervened, the boat people were being forcibly returned to Haiti; now, Haitians "interdicted" at sea are being taken to a temporary camp at the U.S. Navy installation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The U.S. government is expending massive resources to apprehend people whose only "offense" is fleeing bloody chaos and death at the hands of the army whose coup on Sept. 30 drove President Jean Bertrand Aristide out of office. The U.S. policy behind the interdiction and repatriation of the boat people not only violates international law; it also sends a subtle signal of acceptance to the anti-democratic coup leaders.

The shaky legal framework for the Haitian interdiction program is a 1981 "letter agreement" reached between officials of the Reagan Administration and the dictatorship of then-President-for-Life Jean Claude Duvalier. A proclamation signed by President Reagan justified the program as necessary because Haitian refugees "threatened the welfare and safety of communities" in the southeastern United States.

So far this year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has apprehended about 1.5 million people who were in this country without permission. Haitians make up, at most, one-quarter percent of this population, or one in 400. Even if the small number of Haitians seeking safe haven doubled, it would still be insignificant, and no threat to "the welfare and safety of communities in the southeastern United States."

Many critics of the interdiction program point out that the only difference between the Haitians and other asylum-seekers is that the Haitians are poor and black. Of the 24,000 Haitian boat people "interdicted" since 1981, fewer than 100 were allowed to enter the United States to apply for political asylum.

Interdiction has become an extra-legal process--a military operation that violates several treaties, including the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognize the right of people to seek asylum from persecution outside their home countries. Government guidelines on the procedures to be followed during "interdiction" operations provide for a brief asylum interview, but only when it is "practicable" in the opinion of the commanding Coast Guard officer. Numerous accounts and sworn declarations provided by "interdicted" Haitians confirm that they were provided no reasonable opportunity to explain the basis for their asylum claims before being handcuffed to the decks of Coast Guard boats and forced back to Haiti.

The tragedy unfolding in the Caribbean is a clear case of selective and contradictory application of international law by the United States. The Bush Administration early on called the Haitian coup "outrageous" and urged Haiti's military leaders "to respect constitutional order." The Organization of American States has demanded that President Aristide be returned to office. The Administration supported that demand, but ignored an OAS request that the interdiction program be stopped.

The Administration attempts to justify its double standard by claiming that the Haitian boat people are "economic," not "political" refugees. This claim rings hollow in light of the extremely low level of interdictions when President Aristide was in office, compared with the thousands who attempted to flee Haiti immediately after the coup. Haitians gathering along the coast searching for boat captains to smuggle them out have repeatedly told foreign journalists that they fear the army more than the perils they face at sea.

While the international embargo imposed to punish the coup leaders has made life even more difficult in Haiti, the problem is not that the Haitians are "economic refugees." The Bush Administration and several before it have welcomed with open arms hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba, Vietnam and other communist countries, studiously ignoring whether they were fleeing economic disarray, civil unrest or political persecution. The problem instead seems to be that the Haitian refugees are poor and black, and are fleeing a military that was established, trained and armed by the United States. As long as the military holds the reins of power in Port-au-Prince and the cycle of political violence continues, Haitians by the thousands will continue to risk everything to escape their tiny prison island.

One year ago, Congress passed legislation that gave the Administration wide discretion to provide "temporary protected status" for refugees fleeing civil unrest. The Administration would fulfill its international obligations by granting that status to Haitians, as it has done for refugees from Lebanon, Kuwait, Somalia and Liberia. Given the Administration's punitive and discriminatory response to Haitian refugees, it is clear that it will take a special act of Congress to provide them safe haven, as was done for Salvadorans. And, given the Administration's misapplication of safe haven, Congress needs to strengthen that law.

If the Haitian generals are expected to comply with international law and the demands of the OAS, the United States should do no less. The Bush Administration, as much as the generals, has the lives of the Haitian people in its hands.

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