MIAMI — U.S. authorities have moved to return hundreds of fleeing Haitians to their homeland over the last several days as uncertainty over next month's election and an eruption of violence on the island have triggered a new refugee exodus.
A vessel loaded with 581 Haitian refugees was stopped Sunday off the coast of Andros Island in the Bahamas, on its way to Florida; another overloaded craft sank, drowning 47. In all, more than 1,100 Haitians have been interdicted at sea in the last week.
Although U.S. State Department officials expressed concern about the sudden jump in Haitians attempting to flee their homeland, spokesman Nicholas Burns said that "the number does not represent the kind of crisis that we have seen in the past . . . and we certainly hope that this situation will not come to that."
Nonetheless, the number of Haitians found aboard just two boats--both apparently operated by smugglers--is the highest since the chaotic summer of 1994, when tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans attempted to reach Florida in rafts and sailboats. And it is more than the total stopped in the 11 months since Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to power.
In addition to the 581 Haitians rescued from a 75-foot, wooden-hulled freighter Sunday, the Coast Guard last Tuesday stopped a similar freighter 140 miles southwest of Miami. That boat was packed with 516 Haitians who reported paying smugglers up to $3,000 apiece for standing room on a voyage from Cap Haitien on the north coast.
A third boat overloaded with Haitians bound for the U.S. reportedly capsized over the weekend off the coast of Port-de-Paix. Reuters news service quoted independent Radio Metropole as reporting that up to 47 people may have drowned.
"We've definitely seen a shift from 10, 20, 30 migrants in a sailboat to professional smuggling operations where 500 people are jammed on 75-foot freighters," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Marc Woodring. "These are extremely overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, and we're extremely concerned about it."
Woodring said Coast Guard patrols in the Caribbean north of Haiti remain routine, but he added: "We have contingency plans in place should a mass exodus begin."
"The closer we get to the election, the more political unrest we're going to see," said Cheryl Little, a Miami attorney and Haitian advocate. "There is concern that the paramilitary thugs have not been disarmed, and that makes for an uneasy situation. A lot are trying to get out now."
Guy Victor, director of Miami's Haitian Refugee Center, said the uncertainty of the next few months may have persuaded some Haitians to risk the crossing now. "People might feel whenever there is a little turmoil in Haiti, their chances of getting political asylum here are better," he said.
Since October, 1994, when U.S. military forces cleared the way for Aristide's triumphant return to Haiti, the number of Haitians attempting to illegally enter the United States by sea has dropped markedly. Between October, 1994, and last month, the Coast Guard reported interdicting 997 Haitians. In July, 1994, alone, more than 16,000 Haitians were picked up.
But in recent weeks, a shaky economy, the Dec. 17 election and the expiration of the United Nations peacekeeping mandate on Feb. 29 have caused jitters throughout the country. Violence also has increased since legislator Jean-Hubert Feuille, a cousin of Aristide, was gunned down Nov. 7.
Aristide himself contributed to the anxiety last week when he seemed to endorse a proposal that would have him remain in office for three more years despite a legal prohibition on a second consecutive term.
But on Monday, he reportedly promised to leave office when his term ends.
"I am leaving Feb. 7," Aristide said in an interview with Liberte--an independent Creole-language weekly newspaper in Haiti--that is to be published Wednesday, the paper said in a written statement.
Burns said Washington expects Aristide to leave office as scheduled and to turn the presidency over to the winner of the December election. "This will be the first transition from one democratically elected president to another. And, as President Aristide has said many times in the past, in a new democracy like Haiti's, the second election and the second transfer of power is perhaps more important than the first," Burns said.
The Coast Guard's Woodring, meanwhile, said that "while illegal immigration may have slipped off the front page, it continues to be an issue."
The first indication that professional smugglers had resumed operations from Haiti came in August, when a 60-foot freighter with 467 Haitians aboard was spotted in the Bahamas. On Nov. 2, after a smaller freighter ran aground in the same island chain, 18 bodies were discovered in the waters near Dead Man's Cay.