US Haitian Refugee Policy - a Brutal `Alternative'
THE 154 Haitians who fled their homeland last month, and who were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and repatriated without so much as a two-minute interview, were arrested by Haitian soldiers on the docks of Port-au-Prince. Their fate should shame President Bush into rescinding his May 24 order to do away with all screening of would-be refugees, a policy that presumes returned refugees are not persecuted.
Since that executive order, desperate Haitians seeking refuge in the US have had only one recourse. They could apply at the American consulate for what is called "in-country refugee processing." But what sort of alternative has this been?
Carl Henri Richardson found out. Mr. Richardson had campaigned on behalf of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After the 1990 election, he was appointed a registrar in Jean Rabel, a town in the northwest. Richardson stayed on the job, issuing birth certificates and marriage licenses, even after the Sept. 30, 1991 military coup that ousted Aristide.
But on Nov. 10, troops searched his house and the homes of other local Aristide campaigners. When Richardson showed up for work the next day, he was arrested and thrown in jail for 13 days. While there, he was forced to watch soldiers viciously stomp on five suspected members of a peasant movement.
In June, after months in hiding because of continuing attacks against his family and property, Richardson heard on the Voice of America that people who faced persecution could go to the US consulate to apply for refugee status. He approached the consulate on June 19 and, after a two-hour wait outside on the street, an employee let him into the compound and spoke to him briefly. He needed more documentary evidence, he was told, evidence on paper to prove he had a reasonable fear of persecution.
Richardson decided to return to the northwest to seek this proof. And, on July 8, while he waited for a letter from a local justice of the peace, soldiers arrested him. He was taken to the military post at Mole Saint Nicholas, where four soldiers beat him for three hours. He was beaten on the bottoms of his feet, his shins, and his buttocks. They beat him on the head until he lost consciousness. Then they kept him in jail for a week.
We interviewed Richardson in late July at his hiding place in Port-au-Prince, then contacted the consulate. Embarrassed by Haitian media reports of the case, a US official was now "very interested in speaking with" Richardson, and promised an interview the next morning.
RICHARDSON'S experience with the consulate, sadly, is typical. During our stay in Haiti, we followed the cases of four refugee-applicants. We chose them out of the multitudes applying because their cases were so strong. Two have now been provisionally accepted and two rejected. One of the men rejected had been employed as a messenger in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Aristide and had worked for years at Aristide's church in the Port-au-Prince slums. He had photos and other documents to prove it. A
truckload of armed men in civilian clothes raided his house in October 1991. The other was a soldier who deserted his post on Oct. 3 because he feared persecution as an Aristide supporter. Six weeks ago, troops had searched his mother's house looking for him. He had ample documentation.
By Sept. 1, only 184 applicants had been accepted since in-country processing began in Haiti in February. Some 1,365 had been denied. Nearly 13,500 applications are marked "pending." Many of those accepted have, like Richardson, experienced arrest or physical mistreatment. Those who have not been subjected to such abuse but only argue they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on their political and social associations are routinely turned down. Yet both international and US standards for refug ee-admittance cite "well-founded fear" as well as actual persecution.
Richardson may at last be accepted as a refugee. He certainly deserves it. But hundreds and probably thousands of others who fear for their lives and well-being are finding Bush's "alternative" to flight by sea to be a cruel hoax.