In calling the Bush Administration's policy toward Haitian boat people a violation of national and international refugee law, a federal appeals court has given the President an opportunity to rethink his unseemly order to escort boats fleeing Haiti back to the island. Instead of appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, our government would do well to choose an alternative, more humane policy toward the Haitian refugees.
U.S. denunciation of last year's coup in Haiti and the Organization of American States sanctions did not anticipate a migration emergency. When it came, the Administration took the anomalous position of decrying the abrogation of human rights and democracy by the junta while denying that individual Haitians were being abused. The response of neighboring nations should have been to protect the coup's victims. Protection does not envision settlement in the United States, nor even coming to U.S. territory. It does not require costly and difficult interviews or political asylum hearings.
Haiti's political situation was extremely fluid last fall, and the target of regional diplomacy was to restore an elected government. Political-asylum procedures are premature in such circumstances. Moreover, bringing substantial numbers of fleeing Haitians to Florida for hearings established incentives for others to take the departure gamble for questionable reasons, exactly what the Administration purportedly and properly sought to thwart.
The Administration would have us believe that political asylum leading to settlement here or peremptory return are its only choices. Not so. By concentrating on protection, it could have made its policy be safety for Haitians while the search for a political solution continued.
A policy of safety requires places to put people. Guantanamo Bay and other military facilities in the hemisphere would be appropriate. Some have proposed a Haitian island as a temporary safety zone. Albeit confrontational, that would open up interesting possibilities for leverage against the junta. Housing Haitians outside U.S. territory is legitimate, given the magnet that we represent for Haitian immigration. By cutting off the chance to get to Florida but still offering protection, the policy would discourage the departure of Haitians for reasons other than seeking refuge.
Safety under regional diplomatic auspices would not only be defensible from the standpoint of refugee law; it also would heighten the pressure to resolve the political crisis generating the boat flow. The OAS would have to incorporate repatriation into a broader settlement and provide human-rights monitoring and other assurances, possibly including peacekeeping, to promote fair treatment. That would represent, for once, a credible attempt to attack some of the causes of the exodus from Haiti.
Escaping the poorest nation in the hemisphere, Haitians are certainly fleeing poverty. But that does not mean that they are not also being collectively persecuted. It is especially alarming, therefore, that the Administration is failing to treat the Haitian boat crisis as a glimpse of things to come. The policy of forced return did indeed stop a desperate, unsafe hemorrhage of boat departures. But that does not mean that the suffering has ended. All that has changed is that neighbors have eliminated any escape.
As things stand, the momentum for a solution has faltered badly. Instead of organizing a creative, lawful and humane response to the next inevitable flight of Haitians, the Administration appears determined to have its policy validated. The same arguments that the appellate court rejected will be sent to the Supreme Court, in hopes it will be more receptive.
What these arguments overlook is the central political reality of mass exodus, generated by egregious, widespread, continuing human-rights abuse. This is an emerging phenomenon in international affairs. Haiti is not a unique case. The same thing is happening in Yugoslavia and elsewhere on the periphery of the former Soviet Union. There will be more.
Finding ways to succor the victims while also holding governments accountable for the well-being of their populations must be a primary objective of our international political agenda. The United States cannot duck the dilemma for long. Haiti would be a good place to start.