Record numbers flee Haiti in tiny boats, seek U.S. warships they once avoided

LULY, HAITI — LULY, Haiti -- Dozens of 15-foot boats bob in the surf by this quiet village, and carpenters hammer and saw on another 10 skiffs that soon will be ready to sail.

The boats in Luly, 25 miles north of Port-au-Prince, are built for fishing close to shore, but would-be refugees near here and across Haiti have begun piling their families into the tiny vessels, fully realizing the boats are no match for the high seas.


"People are just throwing themselves into any little boat they can find," said one boat-builder, who asked not to be identified. "They know it is dangerous, but the police here are more brutal than the sea."

Haitians have begun fleeing by boat in record numbers, with nearly 5,000 picked up by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and warships this week, more than were detained in all of last year.


Unlike the last large-scale exodus, in 1992, the new wave of refugees has included many small skiffs but only a few of the large boats capable of carrying hundreds of people at a time.

One boat-builder in Luly said the smaller boats make it easier to escape, because the military recently has cracked down on people trying to organize trips in larger craft.

United Nations human rights observers and would-be refugees have reported several cases of violent police raids on groups trying to board boats since May. It was then that the new military-backed government announced it would enforce laws against traveling abroad without proper papers.

"The big boats take too long to organize. The police have too much time to find out," the Luly boat-builder said.

The small boats are not bound for Miami, just to the nearest U.S. Coast Guard cutter or warship offshore.

Diplomats say the number of boat people has been increasing, encouraged by the Clinton administration's new policy which allows refugees to seek political asylum outside the country.

In the past, the boat people would have been returned to Haiti to make appeals for asylum at the U.S. embassy.

This process left them open to government reprisals.


Since the policy went into effect last month, more than 30 percent of the first 1,000 boat people were granted asylum after being interviewed aboard the USS Comfort, the Baltimore-based hospital shop anchored in Kingston harbor, Jamaica.

The number of asylums being granted was much higher than at three political asylum centers run by the U.S. embassy in Haiti.

There has always been plenty of repression to push people to leave, said Jean, 19, a student who declined to give his last

name to avoid problems with local police.

What was missing before, he said, was a glimmer of hope that the United States would not send all boat people back without listening to their appeals for political asylum based on their fears of repression.

Young people line up


In the past six months, about 10 of Luly's 2,000 inhabitants have tried to reach the United States by boat. But now, many of the town's young people are lining up. And Jean said he might go, too.

"If they accept a lot of people in the new program, more people will leave," said Jean, who asked to be identified by his first name only. "There is no other way out."

Twenty-five miles away in the capital, one man sent home by force after his asylum request was denied said the rush of refugees gave him hope that he could escape. He said he was nervous about coming back, and asked that his name be withheld.

"I just saw that a lot of people were leaving, so I decided to take a chance," said the man, a farmer who tried to leave with his wife and two small children.

Besides the USS Comfort, the new U.S. asylum program has been expanded to include temporary interviewing centers at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Within weeks another facility will be opened in the British-controlled Turks and Caicos Islands.


Clinton administration officials cited worsening political repression in Haiti as the reason for the change.

Human rights groups say more than 3,000 Haitians have been killed since the military overthrew the country's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991.

Rapidly deteriorating economic conditions also has spurred the current exodus.

A stiffened economic embargo aimed at forcing out the military leaders who toppled Father Aristide is creating severe hardships for the nation's 7 million people.

Bureaucratic delays

Until recently, asylum requests were handled by U.S. Embassy officials at three offices set up in 1992 to process refugee claims. But the offices in Port-au-Prince have too much work to handle.


In the rare event a Haitian is granted asylum, the paperwork requires the refugee to stay two months or more before being allowed to leave.

That, said several refugees, is not good enough.