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Experts Criticize US Policy Towards Haiti - 2004-09-30

A group of experts on Haiti say the United States applies a different standard, when it comes to problems facing the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished country. The experts issued their assessment Wednesday night, during a panel discussion in Washington.

Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the non-profit National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York, told a Georgetown University audience that Washington's policy toward Haiti is based primarily on what he calls American national interests.

"What is the national interest of the United States with respect to Haiti? As far as I'm concerned, it's two-fold," he said. "It's containing Haitian migration to the United States, that's first and foremost, as a primary reason why the United States engages in Haiti, and the second is to contain drug trafficking from Haiti and from the Caribbean to the United States."

Similar sentiments were echoed by Susan Benesch, a refugee advocate with the human rights group, Amnesty International. She says that, since 1980, the United States has admitted few Haitian refugees, compared with the number of refugees admitted from other countries.

Ms. Benesch says that even when the political crisis in February forced PresidentJean-Bertrand Aristide from power, the United States repatriated large numbers of Haitians who were intercepted at sea, while trying to flee their troubled homeland.

"The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted several hundred people, most notably on two large boats, at the end of February and in early March. Not a single one of them, not one of the people aboard those boats was recognized as an asylum seeker," she said.

Also discussing Haitian-American policy was Erin Corcoran, a staff attorney with the group Human Rights First. She says many Haitian asyulm seekers do not get adequate legal representation, once they reach American soil and are treated differently than populations from other countries.

"If the Coast Guard comes across a boat of Cubans, they're automatically provided a Spanish interpreter, and they're informed of their right to seek asylum and they're asked a series of questions about whether or not they're afraid to go back to Cuba," she noted.

Under U.S. policy, Cubans who make it to American soil are generally allowed to stay, while those picked up at sea are sent home.

Ms. Corcoran says things are different for Haitian refugees intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Often times, the Coast Guard cutters are not equipped with Creole interpreters and many of the people on the boat don't speak French and only speak Creole. As a result, Haitians don't even know of their right to seek asylum," she said. "The U.S. justification for that is that they want to deter Haitians from coming to the United States because they believe that Haitians are usually only coming for economic reasons."

Organizers of the panel discussion on Haiti say invited government officials failed to show up.