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Haiti's Refugees

PRESIDENT Clinton's decision to allow asylum hearings at sea for people fleeing Haiti's violently repressive military regime is a welcome move. Regrettably for many Haitians, it has come 16 months too late.

When President Bush ordered the United States Coast Guard to intercept boats fleeing the island nation and return the passengers without hearings in May 1992, the policy was correctly criticized as inhumane, if not a violation of international law.

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One of the chief critics of the move was Bill Clinton, who just before taking office reversed himself and backed the repatriation policy anyway. The reason: Too many Haitians might lose their lives at sea. Yet those who faced the uncertainties of the sea (albeit a shorter trip) trying to cross the Florida Straits from Cuba were accorded near-hero status. Haitians deserve no less sympathy and support because their oppressors are less ideological.

The administration's change comes with an acknowledgment that the repression in Haiti has intensified. Although the White House says it expects an increase in boat people, it doesn't expect a dramatic increase in the number of people accepted as political refugees. Yet ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide drew heavy support from the poor and disenfranchised, who are the focus of grass-roots efforts to encourage education and political activism. The poor also are the easiest, most available targets for paramilitary police.

Allowing asylum interviews at sea is only a temporary step toward dealing with Haitian refugees. More thought should be given to setting up safe havens. One location suggested is Ile de la Gonave, off the Haitian coast. The White House has objected on the basis of the expense of housing and supplies for refugees, as well as on the prospect of US troops occupying Haitian territory. But the haven could be administered by the Organization of American States with US logistical support. Another possibility: Reopen the processing center at Guantanamo Bay. Such efforts, especially if they led to a marked increase in boats fleeing mainland Haiti, would require another acknowledgment - that the bulk of refugees are political, not economic.

The US also could consider adopting a safe-haven policy for Haitians similar to that for Salvadorans fleeing that country's civil war in the 1980s. A corollary: Washington should ensure that any US state likely to receive Haitian refugees under such a policy gets adequate financial support.

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