Haiti's piteous boat people

November 27, 1991

For the past week, Americans have witnessed with growing concern the spectacle of bedraggled refugees being plucked from vessels at sea by U.S. Coast Guard patrols and returned to the tender mercies of Haiti's bloody military dictatorship.

Until the Bush administration backed off somewhat Monday by agreeing to house the refugees temporarily at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it was doing to the Haitians exactly what it had chided Britain for doing to Vietnamese boat people who arrived in Hong Kong last year -- i.e. returning them against their will to a government bent on persecution and revenge.

In fact, the U.S. repatriation policy was actually less defensible than Britain's; after all, the Haitian exodus was largely a result of the U.S. economic embargo aimed at forcing the country's military rulers to allow the return of Haiti's democratically elected leader, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But while the political target of economic sanctions is Haiti's military, it was innocent civilians who were suffering the economic consequences. Thus it was monumental hypocrisy for the U.S. claim that, after wrecking Haiti's economy, those who fled had no right to asylum because they are "economic refugees" rather than victims of "political" persecution.

In recent years, the U.S. has granted asylum to Kuwaitis, Salvadorans, Liberians and Cubans under similar circumstances. On humanitarian grounds alone, the chaotic situation in Haiti justifies comparable treatment to its refugees. Clearly the U.S. cannot keep them in tents at Guantanamo indefinitely. At the very least, they should be granted temporary protective status and allowed to live in the U.S. until the situation in Haiti stabilizes.

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