The United Nations refugee agency is urging countries to grant asylum to fleeing Haitian refugees. The UNHCR says countries are obliged under international law to protect refugees and not send them back to a dangerous situation.

Officials at the refugee agency say they do not know the status of more than 500 Haitian boat-people picked up by the U.S. Coast guard. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the agency is waiting to see what the U.S. authorities are planning to do with the refugees who currently are aboard U.S. vessels.

President Bush has said that the U.S. Coast Guard would intercept boats carrying Haitians and would not allow them to land on U.S. soil. While not referring specifically to the American president's statement, Mr. Redmond says governments must recognize that every person has the right to seek asylum.

"We again reiterate our call to all states in the region to receive those who are forced to flee. We also state that not everyone who leaves a country is a refugee, but those who are forced to flee must have access to international protection. That is a tenet of UNHCR," he said.

Mr. Redmond says, so far, around 400 Haitians have arrived in Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

He also says the UNHCR is gearing up for the possibility of large numbers of people leaving Haiti as it continues to slide toward anarchy.

"In the past, we have seen refugees come ashore on various islands in the Caribbean. We fear that if the situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate, we could see more people fleeing. UNHCR hopes that efforts to end the violence will succeed as soon as possible. But we also have a responsibility to be prepared for any possible outflow.," he said.

Mr. Redmond says the U.N. agency has sent an emergency coordinator to neighboring Dominican Republic for the duration of the crisis in Haiti and has also increased its staff in the region.