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Why Haitians Are Fleeing Their Homeland

WITH United States troops scheduled to leave Haiti in a few weeks, America's military and political engagement in that troubled nation is about to end. But recent Haitian immigration trends suggest that the US mission is far from over.

Although US intervention in Haiti has often been portrayed as an effort to restore democracy, few deny that halting unwelcome immigration was a major reason behind the action. In 1994, President Clinton warned Americans that failure to send troops to Haiti would lead to a continued ''mass exodus of refugees'' from Haiti to the US.

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History seems to have proven him right. In 1994, tens of thousands of Haitians were attempting to reach the US on small, rickety boats in a mass exodus that ended only after the arrival of American troops in Haiti. Now evidence indicates the growth of a more sinister immigration trend. Coast Guard and other US officials are intercepting much larger ships, packed with hundreds of Haitians trying to flee their homeland.

Early this year, US Coast Guard officials rescued 195 Haitians on an overcrowded sailboat attempting to reach the US. Last November, US officials intercepted two ships, one with 600 Haitians aboard and another with 516. Evidence suggests that immigrant smugglers are behind the trend, charging a premium as high as $5,000 for a trip to the US coast.

Often the smuggling trip results in tragic human consequences. Many Haitian migrants die on the boats, either from dehydration or murder. In one horrifying incident reported last August, when US and Bahamian authorities intercepted a Florida-bound boat, they found that crew members or their agents had tossed about 100 of the original 600 Haitian passengers overboard.

The rise of human smuggling from Haiti should not come as a surprise. Migrant trafficking is becoming one of the world's fastest-growing criminal industries, with profits estimated in excess of $7 billion annually. For some gangs, it has replaced drug trafficking as the enterprise of choice.

Migrant trafficking thrives under the presence of two conditions: the absence of legal or regular avenues for migration and a strong demand for migration, both present in Haitian society.

First, Haitians have few options for legal migration to the US. Since Haiti's political system was ''fixed'' in 1994 - at least theoretically, by the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and democratic rule - few Haitians now qualify for political asylum in the US.

Second, Haitians have strong and compelling reasons to leave their homeland, despite the 16-month American presence. Widespread unemployment, rising political and street violence, and persistent poverty are just a few of the concerns. Underlying these problems is the ever-growing burden of population growth in Haiti. At its current growth rate, Haiti's population will double every 20 years. The population issue reportedly provokes such unease in Washington that it rarely gets addressed publicly.

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In 1994, Clinton administration officials correctly said Haitian migrants were fleeing dictators and a repressive government. But they neglected to add that these migrants were also fleeing more intractable problems that can't be eliminated by a brief military intervention.

As long as Haitians are pessimistic about their future, they will look to migration - no matter what the risks - as their only viable option. Waiting to assist them will be the professional smugglers, eager to turn a profit from this growing human misery.

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