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A Bad Precedent

THE situation in Haiti shows no signs of improving. Repression and terrorism are endemic, and the current shaky government, propped up by the military, stands firm against any return of Haiti's freely elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Economically, the country's impoverished majority has been pummeled by an international trade embargo.

In May 10,000 Haitians took to the sea in makeshift boats. Most steer toward the United States, giving officials here a difficult task of rescuing them, housing them, and assessing pleas for asylum.

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Until this week, a central concern had been the logistics of giving the refugees a fair hearing. Pro forma ship-board screening gave way to screening at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many were found to be "economic refugees" and returned to Haiti. But about 8,000 had grounds for political asylum.

This week's order from President Bush, requiring US vessels to intercept fleeing Haitians and immediately return them home, minus any hearing on their refugee status, raises a new set of concerns. This policy flies in the face of international protocols governing refugees, which prohibit returning people to a place where their lives are threatened.

The administration argues that this threat doesn't confront most Haitians and worries, with cause, about encouraging an even greater flow of refugees.

But the viciousness of local military chiefs against Aristide supporters is well known. Who can weigh the threat to individuals without interviewing them? Fear and transportation problems will keep most Haitians from undergoing asylum screening at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, as Washington now proposes.

As for the claim that the US isn't really returning the refugees because they never reached American shores, that's an artifice. The new policy wouldn't allow them to reach anywhere.

At a time when compassion toward refugees is more needed than ever, given tragic events in Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere, the US should be concerned about the precedent it sets.

Are there better ways to address the Haitian crisis? Should the sanctions policy, which hits mainly the poor, be rethought? Could temporary housing at Guantanamo, which is 47 square miles in size, be expanded? Should "temporary protective status" in the US be extended to Haitians? Such status has been given to Salvadorans, Liberians, Lebanese, and others whose homelands hold clear dangers.

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