The State Department says the U.S. Coast Guard is repatriating more than 500 Haitians intercepted this week in international waters northwest of the troubled Caribbean state. U.S. officials are concerned that the growing political violence in Haiti could trigger a surge of Haitian migrants seeking to land in the United States.
U.S. officials say there is no indication that a massive exodus of Haitians may be imminent. But the State Department says there has been an increase in such activity this week. It says 531 Haitians from at least a dozen small vessels have been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, where Haitians have traditionally begun the hazardous journey to reach the United States.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the Haitians are being returned in cooperation with Haitian authorities, and in line with U.S. policy to turn back all such migrants except of those who can make a credible case they will face persecution on their return.
"U.S. policy with respect to boat migrants including Haitians is clear," he said. "They will be returned to the country from which they departed, absent specific concerns that they might have about protection. U.S. authorities interview migrants when they assert a fear of return, to determine whether they have the credible fear of persecution required to meet international standards for asylum."
Mr. Boucher said Coast Guard medical personnel give the Haitians medical check-ups and provide treatment as needed, and that they are fed and treated as well as can be expected given cramped conditions on board.
U.S. officials, including President Bush on Wednesday, have warned Haitians not to attempt the voyage while saying the United States was doing all it can to restore peace to Haiti and deal with humanitarian needs there.
A three-member team of U.S. relief experts went to Haiti earlier this week to assess how the turmoil has affected the availability of food and medical supplies.
Refugee advocacy groups and some members of Congress have criticized the repatriation policy, saying the U.S. government should not send Haitians home when it has deemed that country dangerous enough to evacuate non-emergency embassy personnel.
Florida Senator Bob Graham said sending people back to what he called the "killing field" that Haiti has descended to is a violation of refugee status and humanitarianism.