Haven for Haitians

January 30, 2004|By Wendy Young

NEW YORK - Violence is worsening in Haiti by the day, and several boatloads of Haitians fled in the last few months to the United States seeking haven, only to be intercepted on the high seas by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned soon after, giving the Haitians onboard little chance to present their asylum claims.

Although there has not been a major outflow of Haitians, the United States continues to implement needlessly harsh measures against Haitian refugees, singling them out for what amounts to discriminatory treatment.

Instead of helping Haitians, the State Department recently stated that Haitian migrants are a threat to the national security of the United States. This statement blatantly ignores the deteriorating human rights situation in Haiti and the fact that a significant number of Haitians who flee their homeland, including women and children, are asylum seekers who have the right to seek protection in the United States.

Haiti has been in turmoil since the party of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the 2000 legislative elections, which observers say were flawed. At least 47 people have been killed during anti-Aristide protests in the past four months.

The United States has repeatedly expressed concerns about the escalating political violence in Haiti and the Aristide government's failure to protect its citizens. While clearly it is in the foreign policy interests of the United States to restore stability to Haiti, it is equally clear that in the interim we have a legal and ethical obligation to protect the rights and safety of refugees forced to flee such conditions.

Instead, the Bush administration has systematically implemented a series of measures intended to deter and prevent the arrival of Haitians on U.S. shores. Such measures include interdiction of Haitian boats on the high seas and in the territorial waters of the United States with little or no screening of passengers' potential asylum claims; resettlement to third countries of those few Haitians provided screening and deemed refugees; prolonged and arbitrary detention of Haitians who are able to make it to United States; criminal prosecution of Haitians who use false documents to enter the United States; and fast-tracked asylum adjudication in hearings as brief as 30 minutes, including time for translation.

In effect, the United States has singled out Haitians for discriminatory treatment in violation of both its obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and U.S. asylum law.

It is disingenuous to cite national security as a justification for these actions. Communications from the administration to support this assertion have either characterized the potential of a Haitian influx as a drain on military resources or indicated that nationals from countries in the Middle East will transit through Haiti to enter the United States.

Any diversion of military resources to support the interdiction effort is purely volitional. In fact, use of the Coast Guard for the interdiction program already represents a misuse of military resources. The notion that U.S. authorities will be unable to differentiate between arriving Haitians and nationals from the Middle East is simply absurd.

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children last year conducted an assessment of the treatment of Haitian refugees in both the Dominican Republic and the United States. It found an almost complete absence of meaningful protection, demonstrated by the experiences of rejected asylum seekers who were returned to Haiti. Women who we interviewed who had been returned to Haiti reported harassment and beatings once they were back in their communities. Some had been forced to go into hiding and were planning to flee again.

The United States must reconsider its Haitian policy in its entirety. Just as U.S. citizens are concerned about their safety, so too are Haitian citizens fearful about their country's future.

As the world's leading defender of human rights, refugee rights and democratic ideals, the United States cannot turn its back on a tiny neighbor. We must do everything we can to restore democracy to Haiti and we must also offer refuge to its citizens who turn to us for help.

Wendy Young is director of government relations at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

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