KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- Citing "a dangerous and unmanageable situation," President Bush yesterday authorized the Coast Guard to return home directly any Haitians encountered on the seas as they flee their nation.
Administration officials said that the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the holding site for Haitian asylum seekers, is already overflowing with more than 12,000 refugees and that the United States had no other option to prevent the flight of further refugees.
The plan puts an end to a policy that had allowed fleeing Haitians to plead their case for asylum with officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Instead, all would-be refugees will now be returned immediately to their beleaguered Caribbean island nation.
In a written statement, issued at Mr. Bush's vacation home, the White House said that the move was "necessary to protect the lives of Haitians" imperiled by the 600-mile journey. But officials said that the Coast Guard now intended to halt and return to Haiti even those refugees whose vessels were not in danger.
The return of political refugees to their home country is prohibited under international law. But the executive order signed by Mr. Bush argues that those restrictions do not apply to refugees intercepted outside U.S. territory.
That did not satisfy leaders of Haitian refugee groups and human rights lawyers, who reacted with outrage to the president's order.
"The U.N. convention on the status of refugees prohibits the return of refugees when they would face persecution," said Ira Kurzban, a human rights lawyer in Miami who tried but failed to get the Supreme Court to rule on the Haitian refugee issue in February. "Apparently, the president's version of the new world order is to ignore existing international treaty obligations."
The United States was a signatory in 1967 of a U.N. protocol on status of refugees, Mr. Kurzban said.
Reacting to the the criticism of human rights advocates, a White House official said that the captains of the Coast Guard vessels would be given authority to grant exception to the automatic return policy.
Any Haitian "boat people" fearful of persecution after being returned home may also press their claims with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, the Haiti capital, the White House advised.
The decision to turn back fleeing Haitians does not affect the more than 12,000 Haitian refugees currently housed at Guantanamo Bay. The White House said the action would allow those migrants to be processed in a more orderly fashion.
Some 34,000 Haitian refugees have fled their country since September, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a coup.
Since then, the nation's economy has deteriorated rapidly under a trade embargo imposed by the Organization of American States, and many Haitians fear political persecution.
Of those picked up by the Coast Guard since September, nearly 10,000 have been granted political asylum or otherwise permitted entry to the United States.
More than 20,000 migrants determined to be fleeing economic hardship rather than political persecution have been returned to Haiti.
Already this month the Coast Guard has registered more than 10,000 Haitian refugees. But the dangerous passage has continued to put scores of migrants at risk, including 18 Haitians who died last week when their vessel capsized off the Cuban coast.
The order issued by Mr. Bush marks an even more restrictive policy than some of his senior advisers had recommended during a reappraisal of a commitment to the Haitian refugees.
Yesterday's order shifted a policy that had gone into place only last week. The Coast Guard on Thursday said that it would pick up only those Haitian boats in danger of sinking and allow seaworthy vessels to continue toward the United States.
The directive establishes a U.S. Coast Guard cordon around Haiti.
The Coast Guard was expected to escort seaworthy boats back to Haitian ports and to carry aboard its vessels other refugees whose craft could not complete the return journey.
"At this point we have no choice but to require all Haitians to be picked up and sent back to Haiti," said White House deputy press secretary Judy Smith. She said the United States would take new steps to urge Haitians not to attempt the crossing.