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Rights Groups Criticize US Treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers

Human rights groups are denouncing continued U.S. repatriations of Haitian asylum seekers intercepted at sea. Activists are urging the Bush administration to provide temporary refuge to those who flee Haiti, at least until lawlessness and violence is quelled in the strife-ridden nation.

In the week preceding former-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's February 29 resignation from office, President Bush dispatched a small fleet of Coast Guard cutters off Haiti's shores to deter what U.S. officials feared could become a mass exodus of boat people. In the weeks since, as Haiti has suffered rampant bloodletting that claimed dozens of lives, the United States has repatriated more than 500 asylum seekers to an uncertain welcome in the nation of their birth.

Speaking at a news conference, Selena Mendy Singleton, Executive Vice President of the Washington-based Trans Africa Forum, said the repatriations are unconscionable.

"What we need to do is stop sending Haitians back to Haiti," she said. "The situation [in Haiti] is desperate. People's houses have been burned down, people have disappeared. We need to stop sending people back. For the people [Haitians] that are here [in U.S. custody], we need 'Temporary Protective Status', right now!"

Temporary Protective Status allows a refugee to remain in the United States, but only until it is deemed safe for him or her to return home.

The Bush administration says there has been no loosening of U.S. immigration policy for Haitians despite recent upheaval in the impoverished nation. Once intercepted at sea, asylum seekers are entitled to ask for refuge, but only after voicing a convincing fear of persecution. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"U.S. policy with respect to boat migrants, including Haitians, is clear: they will be returned to the country from which they departed, absent specific concerns that they might have about protection," he said. "U.S. authorities interview migrants when they assert a fear of return to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution that is required to meet international standards for asylum."

But human rights groups say crowded Coast Guard vessels are less-than-ideal locations for conducting interviews that could mean life or death for asylum seekers. Activists say there are often not enough translators on board, and that privacy is hard to come by, factors that could prevent some refugees from adequately explaining their plight.

Above all, they accuse the United States of shirking its responsibility to those in need during a time of crisis. Bill Frelick handles refugee matters for Amnesty International USA.

"During a crisis, there is an obligation to provide at least temporary shelter for people, and let us see what happens over the course of the next six months. We need to distinguish between the right of refugees to be protected, the right under international law not to be returned to persecution, and the desire of people to immigrate," he said.

World Relief Policy Director Galen Carey says the way the United States treats Haitian asylum seekers has broad implications for refugees worldwide.

"The example that we set here in the United States is followed by countries all over the world. And if we set an example of welcoming and giving fair treatment to refugees, we can expect other countries to do the same. If we do not, then we really have no right to tell other countries that they need to accept refugees that come to their doors," he said.

But the Bush administration says it wants to discourage Haitians from attempting a dangerous journey aboard often-unseaworthy vessels. Janelle Jones, a U.S. refugee officer within the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, says Haitians have been sent back as part of a broader effort to save lives.

"A repatriation was needed to save lives and to prevent a mass migration in which there would be significant loss of live," he said.

In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Haitians took to rafts to escape a brutal military junta that had ousted the country's first democratically-elected president in 1991. Most of those intercepted at sea were housed at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some were ultimately granted asylum in the United States, but many were repatriated after a U.S.-led force restored democratic rule in Haiti in 1994.