The United States has pledged to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan and to bring safety and stability to the citizens of those distant lands. Such rebuilding also was promised a decade ago to another country in our own back yard, Haiti. Yet today Haiti is lurching closer to civil war, while our government is doing all it can to prevent Haitians from reaching our shores to seek asylum.
Despite past U.S. involvement in Haiti and the Bush administration's statements of concern about Haiti's future, the United States rarely allows onto our shores Haitian civilians attempting to escape escalating violence and human-rights abuses. Instead, we intercept them at sea and send them back, often without even a cursory effort to determine whether any have a credible asylum claim.
U.S. troops ousted the military dictatorship that had taken over Haiti after a 1991 coup. The United States then helped restore democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994. He was reelected in 2000.
The United States promised to help Haitians build their fledgling democracy, but has since left them behind. Meanwhile, economic conditions in Haiti have only deteriorated, and anti-Aristide factions have risen in power along with that. Aristide's Lavalas Family party has been accused of a range of human-rights abuses. Intimidation, beatings and murder are becoming more commonplace.
Anti-government demonstrations have been violently repressed and, in reaction, the ministers of education, tourism and environment have recently resigned. Pro-opposition journalists have been targeted with death threats. Children are forcibly recruited as soldiers.
But the United States has turned its back on Haitians fleeing their troubled homeland. The U.S. Coast Guard recently intercepted 361 Haitians at sea and sent them back to Haiti. Unlike interdicted Cubans and Chinese, who are at least minimally screened for claims of asylum before being repatriated, Haitians are only provided a ``shout test.''
Haitians must loudly step forward and express a fear of return before screening is provided, a difficult step for someone on a crowded boat facing uniformed officials and hungry, traumatized and unable to speak English. Two weeks ago, a boat of 70 Haitians was returned without screening.
Interdiction is only the beginning of U.S. efforts to deter the Haitian refugees. The United States also has singled out Haitians for mandatory and prolonged detention. In some cases, the administration has refused to release Haitians even after they have been granted asylum by a judge.
The administration also has fast-tracked the adjudication of Haitian asylum claims, forcing some applicants to present their claims without counsel in hearings as short as 30 minutes -- including time for translation.
By adopting such harsh measures, the Bush administration has violated the U.S. obligation to offer refugee protection under both international and domestic law and has implemented a discriminatory policy that specifically targets Haitians.
Remarkably, the U.S government has labeled Haitian refugees a threat to national security to justify these policies. Haitians should not be forced to return to the very real political chaos in their own country in order to serve some ephemeral connection to our security.
The United States has invested in Haiti and cannot walk away from Haitian asylum seekers now. Thus, the United States must simultaneously protect refugees by providing them with full access to the U.S. asylum system and rejuvenates its commitment to addressing the root causes that compel people to flee. Like the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, Haitians, too, deserve peace and respect for their rights -- whether in the United States or Haiti itself.
Wendy A. Young is director of government relations for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.