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Clinton Mulls Haiti Policy In Face of Refugee Threat

PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton is expected next week to announce a new Haitian refugee policy aimed at heading off an anticipated wave of boat people that could bring his first foreign affairs crisis right to South Florida shores.

Mr. Clinton has been critical of the Bush administration's policy of returning fleeing boat people to Haiti without immigration hearings. This position has spurred Haitian hopes that the Jan. 20 Clinton inauguration would be the all-clear signal to launch their rickety boats toward US asylum.

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The main plank of US policy will remain the firm support of ongoing - but so-far futile - international efforts to restore democratic rule in Haiti. The UN and Organization of American States are trying to broker a negotiated settlement between the Haitian military, diverse elements of the Haitian political spectrum, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted by the military in September 1991. These efforts have also included a crippling economic embargo on Haiti.

But what to do about the thousands of Haitians bailing out of their country is Clinton's toughest immediate problem.

Though there have been various reported versions of the proposed refugee policy, a key element apparently would involve beefing up refugee screening programs within Haiti to help keep Haitians off the high seas.

While the Clinton team has meticulously pored over possible solutions, mindful of the expensive domestic problem a refugee crisis could cause in the early days of the administration, there really are very few options available, say political and diplomatic experts on Haiti.

"To assume there are a vast number of new options out there because we've elected a new president is false," says Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman Duke Austin. "The bottom line is that whatever [Clinton does], the numbers [of Haitians] the process permits to reach the US dictates how many want to access the [application] system."

In the months following President Aristide's October 1991 ouster, about 40,000 Haitians fled across the Caribbean before the Bush order last May reversed the policy of offering hearings to anyone picked up at sea by the US Coast Guard. The flow of Haitian boats immediately slowed to a trickle.

SINCE then, the US has had a detail of four INS agents assigned to the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince to take applications for refugee status, Mr. Austin says. Between May and December, 13,613 Haitians submitted their names for refugee status, and 2,590 of these cases have been adjudicated. Only 280 won refugee status.

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Some of the refugee options under discussion include:

* Increasing the number of locations and staff for US refugee screening in Haiti.

* Having the UN High Commissioner for Refugees set up screening camps in third countries.

* Reversing the Bush policy to summarily return Haitians caught at sea and allowing them hearings aboard ships or at the US naval facility at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Should Clinton keep his campaign promise to allow Haitians caught at sea a hearing, he runs the risk that it would create a "magnet effect" drawing more Haitians to the opportunity, State Department officials say. Key Democratic supporters of Clinton on Capitol Hill have told the president-elect they do not want to run that risk.

Further, muses one longtime Haiti observer, it is "absurd" to think an impoverished rural Haitian would stay in Haiti to apply for uncertain refugee status if he believes there is a good chance that a boat trip out of the country could win him an immediate asylum hearing aboard a US Coast Guard cutter, or immediate protected status if he reached US soil.

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