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Last Updated: 03/26/2004
Haitians Denied Asylum
Joanna Gaughan

Haitians Denied Asylum


You wake up one day to complete and utter chaos.  There is no longer any rule of law in your country.  Your child comes running in from outside – she has been beaten by paramilitaries and is badly injured.  Your father and brother, who were civil servants, were killed during the night because they worked for the government.  You also work for the government – perhaps you have even publicly expressed your political views.  You know they will be coming for you next, and your only thought is escape.


You and your daughter manage to make it safely to the harbor, where you find hundreds of people trying to flee.  You are lucky – you have some money, and you are able to buy your way onto a boat.  As it leaves the harbor, you see gunmen shooting down many of the people who were not able to make it onboard.


After three days on the open sea with no food or water, you are picked up by the Coast Guard of a neighboring country.  You cry with relief at being rescued.  However, you quickly realize that something is wrong.  Others on the boat start screaming and crying after talking with the rescuers.  You push your way through the crowd to where the Coast Guard officers are, and you find out why the others are so terrified.  The officers’ pronouncement amounts to a death sentence: you are all being sent back immediately.


This is essentially the story of what has happened to 1,037 Haitian refugees in recent weeks.  Despite the atmosphere of chaos and terror in Haiti, the Bush administration has ordered the Coast Guard to summarily turn back all Haitian refugees attempting to reach the United States.


In addition to being cruel, Bush’s resolution is also illegal.  The 1951 “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” and its accompanying protocol, ratified by the United States, require all states parties to refrain from returning any person to “territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (Art. 33)  Those who seek refugee status must be granted temporary asylum until it is determined whether they qualify as refugees under the Convention.


A small number of Haitian refugees have been able to enter the United States.  U.S. policy on Haitians is that only those who pass the “shout test” by yelling out their claims while still onboard Coast Guard vessels are permitted to enter the country temporarily and given an asylum screening.  Asylum-seekers from all other countries receive this screening automatically.


Numerous groups have expressed outrage over Bush’s Haitian refugee policy, some going so far as to call it blatantly racist.  Organizations as varied as the Green Party, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Congressional Black Caucus have called for the U.S. government to change its policy and ensure the safety and security of the refugees.


NGOs are also concerned that the Bush administration may attempt to detain Haitian refugees in Guantanamo Bay, as it has done in the past. 


The Bush administration defends its decision based on a clause in the Refugee Convention that provides that states parties may expel refugees from their territories only “on grounds of national security or public order.”  (Art. 32)  The administration states that it believes that national security is at risk in the current situation, in part because terrorists from countries such as Pakistan may try to enter the U.S. via Haiti. 


The U.S. government assures concerned parties that Haitian refugees will not be placed in Guantanamo Bay.


The governments of the Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica have accepted refugees from Haiti in recent weeks.  It remains to be seen however whether the U.S. government will meet its moral and legal obligations to do the same.