MIAMI -- President Bush's order to return Haitian boat people directly to Haiti without review violates international law and serves as a virtual death sentence for some Haitians, refugee lawyers said yesterday.
"We have a refugee emergency in our own back yard, and we have closed our doors," said Bill Frelick, senior policy analyst for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private refugee-advocacy group.
"It's dangerous and frightening. When there is another refugee emergency in Africa or Asia, the countries that want to close the door, push these people away, will be able to point to the United States," he said. "Our ability to act as a moral voice has seriously been undermined."
Mr. Bush's new executive order provides refugees with little if any protection from the de facto government some of them are fleeing, refugee lawyers said.
The Bush administration issued the executive order Sunday with little elaboration. In a statement, the president said he hoped it would help save lives by discouraging Haitians from making the dangerous journey to Florida.
Returning to the White House yesterday, Mr. Bush defended his policy. "We're doing the right thing," he said.
Under Mr. Bush's order, boat people must ask for political asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.
"If you walk into the embassy, you're marking yourself as an opponent of the military and the de facto government," said Bill O'Neill, deputy director for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York.
And advocates for refugees say the embassy is too short-staffed to deal with thousands of time-consuming claims.
"It's a sham," said Robert Juceam, a lawyer for the New York firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson.
During the past few weeks, human rights organizations have reported an increase in the number of beatings, arrests and deaths of supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. hemispheric economic embargo, led by the Organization of American States, has deepened the suffering of Haitian refugees. Many have lost jobs and are close to starvation.
Mr. Juceam and other refugee lawyers said Mr. Bush's order violates the most important international treaty protecting refugees: the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The 1967 treaty guarantees that refugees will not be returned to a land where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
The Bush administration argues that the treaty does not protect Haitian boat people because they have not reached U.S. soil. But advocates say the treaty's intention is clear: Do not send potential political refugees to a place where they will be threatened.
"We have closed our eyes and turned our backs," Mr. Juceam said.
The president's order also contradicts the U.S. government's 1981 interdiction agreement with Haiti, refugee lawyers said. In that document, President Ronald Reagan and the Haitian government agreed to ensure that no political refugees stopped at sea would be returned to Haiti.