U.S. worries bid to aid Haitians may spur exodus Tent city in Cuba too small already

November 27, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — A statement in Wednesday's Sun describing how the United States handles Haitian refugees was incorrectly attributed to Arthur Helton of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The statement was actually made by Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials braced yesterday for a continued flow of Haitians risking their lives to flee their homeland as the United States prepared to house 2,500 in tents at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The tent city now being erected at the base "may well turn out not to be enough and if so, then we'll reassess, and if necessary put up more," spokesman Pete Williams said.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The Pentagon opted to erect the tents to ease what Mr. Williams called "intolerable" conditions aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters, eight of which sit at anchor with hundreds of Haitians aboard.

Already, the 3,100 people aboard the cutters exceed the space that will be made available in the 135 tents, meaning that some may have to remain on board.

And officials feared that many more Haitians may view the tent city as a stepping stone to life in the United States and set out aboard unsafe vessels.

"We don't have a lot of alternatives," a senior Pentagon official said.

After record numbers of interceptions last weekend, the Coast Guard picked up three or four more boatloads of Haitians yesterday -- some 150 people.

The Guantanamo decision drew cautious praise from Haitian rights activists.

"This is a step forward in trying to resolve the Haitian refugees' crisis," said Andre Vainqueur, spokesman for the Washington Office on Haiti.

"It is a positive development in that Haitians will receive a temporary refuge," said Arthur Helton of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

The move was prompted by a continued flood of asylum seekers and a judicial restraining order barring the United States from forcibly repatriating the Haitians.

"The current policy is to prevent them from drowning. And when they come north on those boats that are unseaworthy, as a humanitarian mission, we pick them up," Mr. Helton said. "We take them to Guantanamo Bay and we hold them until the litigation is finished, until the court tells us what we can do."

The Haitian exodus is widely believed to be driven in part by economic sanctions imposed by the Organization of American States to pressure Haiti's regime to allow the return of its democratically elected president.

U.S. law permits asylum only to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. So far only 120 have been found to have a plausible claim to asylum and have been allowed to come to the United States for further processing.

But advocates for the Haitians question the fairness and reliability of the screening procedures. Some charge they are being denied entry on racial grounds.

U.S. officials reject any racial motivation and vouch for the fairness of the screening by saying there is no evidence that any of the 538 Haitians forcibly returned so far have been persecuted in Haiti.

But an internal INS memo, unearthed as part of the litigation in Miami, points to serious problems in the screening process.

The Nov. 12 memorandum from Gregg Beyer, director of the asylum branch of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, says that pre-screening interviews "are not only increasingly inconclusive but also of rapidly decreasing validity."

INS spokesman Duke Austin said he was not familiar with the memo but stressed that only initial screening was done aboard Coast Guard cutters. "We can always do a better one on land," he said, adding that the site in Guantanamo "will provide a more controlled atmosphere."

The United States, hoping to get a "regional" solution to the absorption problem, has had only partial success in getting neighboring countries to take a fraction of the refugees.

"I understand it has been raised with Canada, but has not been accepted," Mr. Helton said. U.S. officials said they were unaware of any approach to Canada where Quebec, like Haiti, is French-speaking.

The Dominican Republic, which is next door to Haiti, has denied entry except for a brief transit period.

Mr. Vainqueur of the Washington Office on Haiti urged that the refugees be granted temporary haven in the United States until the country's political crisis is resolved.

A weekend negotiation session in Cartegena, Colombia, between toppled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and members of Haiti's parliament failed to produce agreement on ++ his return.

But U.S. officials say the lawmakers did agree in principle to his return, while refusing to sign a statement naming him.

In return, Father Aristide has agreed to name a new prime minister and reshuffle his cabinet.

The Organization of American States mediator, Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, will brief the OAS today.

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