As they wait to leave Haiti, would-be refugees say their lives are in danger

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Jean Lygner is desperate to leave Haiti.

He was a leader of a grass-roots group that supported the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, who was ousted two years ago in a violent coup.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Lygner said, a gang of gunmen in civilian clothes broke into his home, screaming that they wanted to "talk" to him. As the gunman smashed all the furniture on the first floor, Mr. Lygner, his wife and six children escaped out a back window on the second floor.

"Now we are living like birds," Mr. Lygner said. "One night we are in one tree. The next night, we fly to another."

Mr. Lygner is what the U.S. government considers a "Class A" refugee -- meaning that his life is in immediate danger because of his political beliefs.

But a month since he told his story to immigration officials here, he is still waiting for permission to go to the United States. Haitian refugee advocates say such waiting is the most serious ZTC flaw in the system set up by the U.S. government to help those who need to escape political persecution.

"The system is not suited to serve the needs of the people here," said Anne Fuller, a human rights advocate who works to assist Haitians trying to escape. "It's not suited to someone who's fleeing, who needs to leave quickly."

Once again, rumors are circulating that masses of people are going to flee this impoverished nation in rickety boats headed for the United States. Last week the United Nations clamped the most crippling embargo yet on Haiti in an effort to cut off supplies from the rogue military government. But it is likely that those who will suffer most are the poor.

Violence in Haiti has become so intense that President Clinton has said that he would not deport those Haitians in the United States who are seeking asylum. But to dissuade the Haitian people from abandoning their country, the president remains firm in warning that U.S. Coast Guard cutters and the U.S. warships patrolling Haitian waters would intercept boats of Haitian refugees and return all passengers to Haiti.

It is a policy that was initiated by the Bush administration, shortly after the 1991 Haitian coup, which determined that most of those fleeing Haiti were looking to escape poverty and not political persecution.

"I think it's crazy to say that it is not safe enough to deport people in the United States," Mrs. Fuller said, "but that it is OK to send back boat people."

Although Mr. Clinton called the deportations "racist" during his presidential campaign, he did not reverse Mr. Bush's policy after taking office, because, he said, he does not want to see Haitians risking their lives to cross the ocean in unseaworthy vessels.

"We want to prevent loss of life," said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. "We want the Haitians to stay here because we want to provide them a better life here. We want them to see that there is hope."

The Clinton administration is imploring those with valid claims for political asylum to apply at their refugee centers in Haiti instead of heading out to sea. Two of the centers -- in Les Cayes and Cap Haitien -- have been closed because of violence and threats of attack. But the office in Port-au-Prince remains open, and workers there expect the number of applicants to double from the usual 70 cases a day.

Refugee centers criticized

Almost from the time it started in February 1992, the "in-country processing centers" (ICP) have been widely criticized by refugee advocates around the world. A report released last month by Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees in New York called U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees "misguided," "inhumane" and "discriminatory."

Mrs. Fuller, who conducted research for the report, said that one of the main flaws of the in-country processing system is that many people who fear being killed are in hiding and terrified of going to downtown Port-au-Prince, where the processing center is.

Jean Josef, 21, is such a person. During an interview at a "safe house" he said his sister was killed because she refused to tell gunmen where he was hiding. Mr. Josef shows a green identification card that proves he is a "Lavalassien," the name of the political party that supports Father Aristide.

"They want me because I want Aristide here, and I want them to go," Mr. Josef said. "I want to leave, because I don't want them to kill me.

"But I can't go to the [ICP] office," he said. "If they see me walking in, they can follow me when I walk out and get me."

Mrs. Fuller also said that INS officials who screen Haitian asylum applicants use unfair standards in evaluating the applicants' claims. Normally, she said, applicants must prove that they have reasonable fear of political persecution. But in reviewing the cases of applicants, she said, past persecution is almost always a prerequisite for approval.

Waiting for an answer

But even in such cases, she said, there is an unusually long waiting period. And most people who need to escape don't have a lot of time.

"Everyday I wait for the [INS officials] to give me an answer," Mr. Lygner said. "But I never hear from them, and so I have to pray that God will keep me safe until the next day."

Mr. Lygner says that to keep his family safe, he has sent his wife and children to a village south of Port-au-Prince. Meanwhile, he stays with friends in the hills around the capital, and each day he sneaks into town to find out whether the INS has reached a decision.

He dressed up in a pressed white shirt and dark blue pants to meet with two visitors. And he proudly shows off an identification card from Texaco, where he had been employed for several years.

"I had a good life here," he said. "I had a house and a job that paid me well. I don't want to leave Haiti. But I want to stay alive."

An official at the refugee processing center at Port-au-Prince said the agency does not have the resources to provide safe houses for those waiting for their asylum claims to be judged. But, he said, the agency tries to take some of the danger out of the process.

"We go out to some of those people who cannot come into the office, or we make arrangements for them to come into back doors if necessary," he said. "We try to be flexible whenever possible."

'The killers are waiting'

Mr. Lygner is resigned to wait. No matter how dire his situation becomes, he said, he will not put his family on an unseaworthy ship and sail off in the dark toward the United States.

"Too many people have died on the water," he said. "And if the U.S. officials find you, they bring you back to Haiti, and the killers are waiting for you on the dock."

Clearly, there are many more people such as Mr. Lygner in hiding. And, as INS officials say, there are also many people who are menaced more by Haiti's wretched living conditions.

Industries are dead. Crops of beans and corn are poor because of soil erosion. Education is too expensive for children whose parents earn $2 on good days. And neighborhood streets are piled with garbage and human waste. Disease is common.

Jean Pierre Eve, 23, said he has unsuccessfully applied three times for political asylum at the refugee processing center in Port-au-Prince. He is from Cite Soleil, this nation's most depressing slum. He says he is a member of a pro-Aristide group and that he has been chased by gunmen since they saw him hanging posters of the ousted president.

At the same time, he talks about how he cannot find work and how he spends days without eating.

"All people need is work to do," he said. "If there was work, no one would think about going to the United States."

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