Good morning. I would like to begin by thanking CWS for sponsoring this important conference.
In August 2002, the Women’s Commission, in collaboration with NCHR and FIAC, sponsored a delegation to evaluate the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States and the Dominican Republic. The delegation interviewed Haitian asylum seekers and their families, UNHCR, and NGOs and government officials working with the refugees, in both countries.
I will focus largely on the research we conducted in the U.S. but will also touch briefly on what is happening in the D.R. Haitian asylum seekers—including women and children—have been systematically singled out by the U.S. government and denied fundamental protections that are provided to refugees of virtually any other nationality. In effect, the U.S. asylum system exists on paper only if you are Haitian. The U.S. government at the highest levels has coordinated a series of measures that together are designed to deter and prevent the arrival of Haitian asylum seekers.
Cheryl and others have already discussed the use of detention and fast-tracked asylum procedures to move Haitians who do arrive in the U.S. quickly through the system, resulting in their involuntary return in the vast majority of cases. These steps are reinforced through the use of interdiction of Haitians both on the high seas and in U.S. territorial waters. The arrival and disembarkation of the Haitians in December 2001 and October 2002 were in fact an anomaly; most Haitians are intercepted by the Coast Guard before they even arrive and are immediately returned to Haiti. In FY 2002, almost 1500 Haitians were interdicted; thus far in ‘03, the total has reached 548.
In contrast to interdicted Cubans and Chinese—who are at least provided a screening of their potential claims for asylum before being repatriated—Haitians are only provided what is known as the “shout test.” This means that a Haitian has to step forward and express a fear of return before any screening is provided, an extraordinary step for someone who is on a crowded boat, faced by uniformed U.S. officials, and is probably hungry, thirsty, and traumatized to boot. Not to mention that it is likely that there are no Creole speakers on board to communicate with her.
But even if the person is courageous enough to step forward and ask for help, her ability to present an asylum claim is severely limited. At that point, at the discretion of the Coast Guard, an INS asylum officer may fly out to the boat and conduct a preliminary credible fear interview. If found credible, the person is still not taken to the U.S. Instead, she is transferred to Guantanamo Bay and provided a second refugee interview by another asylum officer.
But it doesn’t stop there—even if found to have a well-founded fear of persecution and thus qualified for refugee status—the person is denied resettlement in the U.S., regardless of any family or community ties she may have there. Instead, the refugee is processed for resettlement to a third country. And to where is she transferred? To Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Australia. And in the future, perhaps to Canada under the so-called safe third country agreement.
The interdiction program was reinforced by the Bush Administration through an executive order issued on November 15, 2002, within weeks of the arrival of the October boatload. The order allows the Attorney General to maintain custody of any interdicted person at any location he deems appropriate, including Guatanamo Bay. It allows the Attorney General to conduct any screening he deems appropriate, including most importantly, absolutely no screening at all. It also authorizes third country resettlement.
The failure to offer protection to Haitians is not limited to the United States. Our assessment revealed that there is also no meaningful protection in the Dominican Republic. The DR is the only country in the Caribbean to enact asylum legislation. However, its implementation of the law has been deficient, leaving hundreds of asylum seekers—the vast majority Haitian—in limbo for years. They are denied assistance and suffer abuses both from Dominican authorities and the community at large. Their children are also typically unable to attend school.
Up until December, UNHCR attempted to fill some of this gap by offering some minimal cash, medical, and housing assistance through a local Dominican NGO. However, it did not renew its contract with this organization, thus eliminating even this modicum of relief. Since then, UNHCR has indicated that it will place an expatriate staff person in the region to assist the government in moving forward with pending asylum claims and to lay the groundwork for a contingency plan for any future Haitian refugee crisis. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that Haitians seeking protection in the DR are afforded an opportunity to live their lives in safety and dignity.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is actively supporting efforts in the DR to prevent the arrival of Haitians. It has recently assisted the DR in further militarizing its border with Haiti, including shipping 16,000 M-16 rifles to the Dominican government to aid in this effort. While this effort was ostensibly to prevent the flow of drugs and terrorism across the border, it also will clearly block the flow of people as well. The US is also exploring the establishment of airport pre-inspection in the Dominican airport to stop anyone transiting through the DR on their way to the U.S.
Clearly, the message the U.S. government wishes to send is “Haitians not welcome.” What I’d like to share with you now is some of what we think are the politics behind this extraordinary effort to stem the flow of Haitians to the U.S. But first I should say that a desire to keep Haitians out—as so many in the room today know—is nothing new. Those who lived through the Haitian crisis of the early to mid 90s are only too familiar with the dynamics.
Some of the reasons cited by the government to justify interdiction, summary return, third country resettlement, prolonged detention, and fast tracked adjudications also have a familiar ring. For example, in its resettlement plan for FY 2003, the State Department described Haitian migration as being largely “economic” in nature. This characterization is ironic given that the same State Department has raised numerous concerns about human rights conditions in Haiti in the context of its annual human rights report and in public statements from high level officials all the way up to Colin Powell. The characterization of Haitians as economic migrants also ignores that fact that Haiti’s economic problems are intrinsically tied to its political instability.
The U.S. has also justified interdiction as necessary to save Haitian lives. While it is true that an unknown number of Haitians have lost their lives trying to get to the U.S. on board unseaworthy boats, rescue at sea does not necessitate repatriation. Just as maritime law requires boats to offer assistance to those in peril, so too does refugee law require that a country refrain from returning refugees and asylum seekers to life threatening persecution.
The United States has publicly defended its policy by saying that such measures are necessary to deter a Haitian outflow. This is a blatant violation of international law, as UNHCr has so many times pointed out. Refugee law is grounded in the principle of safe haven not deterrence.
Finally, reflecting the times in which we find ourselves, the U.S. government has come up with a new argument to support the restrictions it has applied to Haitians. It has characterized Haitians as a threat to our national security. The government bases this argument on the fact that a Haitian refugee influx will divert critical Coast Guard and military resources away from the war against terrorism and the war against Iraq. It has also argued that housing Haitians at Guantanamo will distract from the interrogation of Al Queda members held there.
It goes almost without saying that this argument is a gross manipulation of the current political environment. Concerns about national security must be balanced with our commitment to refugee protection instead of national security balanced on the backs of refugees. The enhanced treatment afforded to other nationals who are subject to interdiction, moreover, undermines the efficacy of this argument.
We have spoken today about the problem of impunity in Haiti. We equally cannot let impunity reign in the United States.
I’d like to close by bringing us back to the very real human cost that the restrictionist measures adopted by the Administration carry. Rigmane arrived in the US as part of the October 2001 boat. She suffered eight months of detention in a maximum security prison in Miami before she was deported. She was awakened at 2:00 am by the INS on July 29th, taken to the airport, and handcuffed and shackled throughout the trip back to Haiti. There she was turned over to the Haitian authorities who imprisoned her for two days. She was housed in a cell with 60 women, some of whom were sick or pregnant, one of whom was accompanied by her newborn infant. There was only one cot for every three women. There was no food or water. There were no toilet facilities. Rigmane told us that the smell was unbearable.
Rigmane’s family finally got her out of prison, at which point she returned to her home in Gonaives, one of the most troubled areas of Haiti. But her problems did not stop there. After her return, her mother’s restaurant was sprayed with gunfire. Rigmane and her brother-in -law were later attacked by forces aligned with the Lavalas party, who beat her on the back and chest with rifles. Rigmane ended up in the hospital and was still spitting up blood when we interviewed her. She went into hiding after that, from where she told us “I don’t have a future in Haiti. Haiti doesn’t have a future. The next time that you call, I might be dead. I will do whatever it takes to get out.” And sadly, the U.S. government appears intent on doing whatever it believes it takes to keep Rigmane and others out.