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#3499: Haitians head for U.S. as violence, poverty worsen - REUTER's FWD (fwd)


Haitians head for U.S. as violence, poverty worsen

By Angus MacSwan

MIAMI, May 7 (Reuters) - With political violence increasing in Haiti ahead of 
elections and poverty there as grim as ever, more Haitians are taking to the 
seas in risky and expensive bids to reach the United States. 

U.S. officials and refugee advocates say that although fears of a huge exodus 
of thousands of ``Boat People'' might be unfounded, they are keeping a wary 
eye on the rising tide. 

The trend was highlighted last month when nearly 300 Haitians were rescued 
from an uninhabited island in the Bahamas, where they were stranded after 
their boat broke down. At least 14 were believed to have died during the 

Dozens of Haitians landed in South Florida last week -- brought over, Border 
Patrol officials said, by smugglers charging upward of $2,000 per trip. 

Killings and other violence have surged in Haiti before long-delayed 
elections now planned for May 21. The government has been paralysed by 
bickering for more than two years, holding up much needed international aid. 

And the economy in what is already the poorest country in the Americas, with 
an average annual income of about $200 per family, is sinking further into 
the mire. 

``I'm not optimistic the Haitian government has any control over what's going 
on,'' said refugee advocate Marleine Bastien of the Haitian Women of Miami. 
``Something has to be done to give people hope. They're desperate, they do 
not see things changing.'' 

The U.S. Coast Guard already has rescued nearly 700 Haitians at sea this 
year, many of them packed into barely seaworthy hulks. The Coast Guard 
rescued 480 last year. 

The Border Patrol picked up 236 in South Florida between October and April. 
That's less than last year but figures for the past few months indicate a 
recent surge, Border Patrol spokesman Joseph Mellia said. 

One group of about 30 who landed in Miami last week changed clothes, hailed 
cabs and made phone calls at a store before disappearing, according to local 
media. Only five were caught. 


Mellia said Haitian and Bahamian smugglers were bringing in many of the 
Haitians, using the city of Freeport and the tiny island of Bimini as staging 
points. In addition to those travelling in overcrowded bigger vessels, small 
groups were coming in fast boats, he said. 

Florvil Samedi of Miami's Haitian Refugee Centre said many were fleeing the 
dire economic conditions, whereas a main cause for previous waves was the 
campaigns of repression waged by military rulers. 

``It's different to the refugees who came before. What we have now is 
'businessmen' in Haiti telling them they will get Green Cards when they 
arrive. It is organised smuggling,'' he said. 

Several migrants turn up at his centre each day seeking help, he said, 
including former policemen and grass-roots political organisers. ``Most don't 
have a claim to political asylum.'' 

It is a serious bone of contention in Miami that despite the misery in their 
homeland, illegal Haitian migrants who make it to the United States are 
usually deported -- unlike Cubans, who are almost automatically given 
political asylum. 

The difference in treatment was made evident in the highly publicised custody 
battle over Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez. No such fuss would have 
erupted over a Haitian child, refugee advocates say. 


This weekend 14 Cubans were brought ashore by the U.S. Coast Guard. Most have 
already been released from detention. They already had jobs lined up, 
relatives told local media. 

``The U.S. government has been reluctant to recognise that its attempt to 
establish democracy in Haiti has not been successful,'' said Cheryl Little of 
the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Centre. 

Haiti has suffered for much of its history under brutal military regimes and 
thwarted attempts at democratic rule. A U.S. invasion in 1994 restored Jean 
Bertrand Aristide, an elected president overthrown in a coup, but the 
government of his successor Rene Preval has been gripped by inertia. 

``Elections are not the solution. For the economy to improve, Haiti needs 
political stability,'' Bastien said. ``The violence now, people do not know 
who is behind it. There are different armed factions with different 

The Border Patrol and Coast Guard, which have vivid memories of a 1994 exodus 
that brought tens of thousands to U.S. shores, are ready to increase 
resources to deal with any huge surge. 

But the situation is already causing problems for the Bahamas, whose 
scattered islands make it the smugglers' favourite route. The legal Haitian 
migrant population is about 8,000 but estimates put the number of illegals as 
high as 40,000. 

``What is certain is that the toll being exacted on the social and economic 
resources of the Bahamas is becoming increasingly unbearable,'' Bahamian 
Foreign Minister Janet Bostwick said. 

12:46 05-07-00

Copyright 2000 Reuters Limited.