PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Thousands of would-be refugees have flocked to U.S. government offices here to apply for political asylum in the weeks since the military thwarted exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's homecoming.
The number of daily applicants has nearly quadrupled at the Port-au-Prince headquarters of the U.S. political-refugee program, a diplomat familiar with emigration issues said. The situation there is "frantic," he said.
The flood began about two weeks after military leaders who overthrew Mr. Aristide in 1991 refused to step down as promised and allow his scheduled Oct. 30 return. It has intensified with the growing realization that the United States was backing away from its determination to return him to power.
Their hopes for Mr. Aristide's return --ed, many now believe all their country offers is slow starvation and repression that grows more brutal each day, several refugees said.
"On Oct. 28 the soldiers began hounding us, and they have never let up," said Hyppolite Marseille, 30, a farmer and member of a peasant group near the southern city of Jacmel. "All of my friends, all the young men, had to leave or hide. They killed two people from our cooperative."
As many as 800 people file in to pick up application forms each morning at the office building that houses the Port-au-Prince center, one of three in the country. Before the surge, between 150 and 200 new applications came each day.
Several applicants on a recent morning said they were nervous about visiting the center, which is just a block from military headquarters and two blocks from the main Port-au-Prince police station.
But even if they were being watched, they said, the risk was one they had to take.
"You have to just make up your mind, accept the danger and never look back," Marseille said.
Refugee advocates have long criticized the U.S. policy of making Haitians apply for asylum while still in Haiti, rather than upon arrival in the United States, saying anyone facing real political persecution would be a sitting duck outside buildings where U.S. immigration officers work.
Supporters of the program say it offers a way out for people who are trapped.
"Someone who is truly politically persecuted stands a damn good chance of getting out," the diplomat familiar with the asylum program said.
With U.S. Coast Guard cutters patrolling the seas off Haiti to intercept boat people and send them home, Haitians who are on the run don't have many options, one human rights activist said. Despite fears of a flood of boat people when the United Nations-brokered peace plan crumbled, just one sailboat carrying 28 refugees has been stopped at sea since Oct. 30.
"People have nowhere else to go. There are too many boats out there waiting to stop refugees," said the activist, who requested anonymity. "As long as the asylum offices offer them a thread of hope, people will take the chance and go in to fill out the forms. Every day you will see more of this, because the situation isn't getting any better. People are in more danger than ever."
The Port-au-Prince center and two branch offices -- in Cap-Haitien on the north coast and Les Cayes in the south -- also have begun drawing more people in part because of the pullout of United Nations human rights observers, one Western diplomat said. In Les Cayes, applications are up from a couple of dozen per day to 100 daily.