Bush Orders U.S. Ships to Turn Back Haitians : Immigration: White House seeks to ease a ‘dangerous situation.’ A foe sees a violation of international law.


President Bush on Sunday ordered U.S. vessels to return directly to Haiti any fleeing refugees encountered from now on in the seas off the troubled Caribbean island nation.

The White House said the action is meant to ease a “dangerous and unmanageable situation” made more grave in recent days as thousands more Haitians joined a flood of 34,000 refugees who have fled their country since last September.

The directive establishes a U.S. Coast Guard cordon around Haiti and was taken after the Administration failed to find an alternative to a policy that has left its refugee center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, filled beyond capacity.


In a written statement issued late Sunday afternoon, the White House said the move is “necessary to protect the lives of Haitians” imperiled by the 600-mile journey. But officials said that the Coast Guard now intends to halt and return to Haiti even those refugees whose vessels are not in danger.

The plan puts an end to a policy that had allowed fleeing Haitians to plead their case for asylum with officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Instead, all would-be refugees will now to be returned directly to Haiti, and the White House advised Haitians fearful of persecution to press their claims with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

The return of political refugees to their home country is prohibited under international law. But the executive order signed by Bush at his vacation home here argues that those restrictions do not apply to refugees intercepted outside U.S. territory.

Human rights advocates argued that the decision sets the dangerous precedent that some refugees would not be permitted to apply for political asylum. But a White House official said the captains of the Coast Guard vessels would be given authority to grant exception to the automatic return policy.

Leaders of Haitian refugee groups and human rights lawyers reacted with outrage to the President’s order.

“This is a violation of international law,” 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.


“The U.N. convention on the status of refugees prohibits the return of refugees when they would face persecution. Apparently the President’s version of the new world order is to ignore existing international treaty obligations,” Kurzban said.

The United States was a signatory in 1967 of a U.N. protocol on the status of refugees, Kurzban said.

In New York, Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, charged that the Administration “is demonstrating what the real goal of interdiction was in the first place: to prevent Haitians from reaching the United States.

“It’s also an admission in our opinion that U.S. policy is not working--if there ever was a policy. The Administration would rather accept the status quo than do something to restore democracy and achieve stability that would be beneficial for Haiti and all countries in the region.”

McCalla also asserted that the U.S. policy shift would cost Haitian lives because those opposed to the regime or facing persecution have no way out.

“Haitians will also be caught on the high seas. Some will simply refuse to be taken away from their boats. There’s a danger that boats will capsize and people will die,” she said.


Of the more than 30,000 Haitian refugees picked up by the Coast Guard since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti was overthrown last September, nearly 10,000 have been granted political asylum or otherwise permitted entry to the United States.

The magnitude of that influx has already sparked political frictions among South Floridians fearful that their communities will be unable to accommodate such an influx. But the Haitians’ success in reaching the United States has appeared to inspire increasing numbers of their countrymen to attempt the risky crossing.

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.

Coast Guard officials said Sunday night that at least 10 cutters are now positioned in the vicinity of Haiti and could be employed immediately to enforce the new policy. The Coast Guard is 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.

The decision to turn back fleeing Haitians does not affect the more than 12,000 Haitian refugees currently housed at the Guantanamo Bay base established by the U.S. military. The White House said the action will allow those migrants to be processed in a more orderly fashion.

The order issued by 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 that has proved more troublesome than most officials had anticipated.


Until now, Coast Guard vessels had plucked refugees from the seas and transported them to the Guantanamo Bay camp, where claims for political asylum were reviewed by American authorities. More than 20,000 migrants determined to be fleeing economic hardship rather than political persecution have been returned to Haiti.

But the continuing exodus has left the camp filled beyond capacity, and the Coast Guard announced Thursday that it intended to relieve the pressure by rescuing only those Haitians who appeared in danger of drowning.

In explaining Bush’s decision to order further steps, Administration officials said Sunday that the magnitude of the surge in recent days had made clear that the United States had no option but to prevent the flight of further refugees.

“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 will take new steps to urge Haitians not to attempt the crossing.

But she said senior U.S. officials were “seeking the assistance of other countries and the United Nations to help deal with the plight of Haitian boat people.” Smith also said the Administration will “continue our intensive efforts to find alternative solutions to avoid further tragedies on the high seas.”

The Administration has lobbied hard in recent weeks to find another Caribbean nation or nations willing to open a second refugee camp. While its efforts to persuade both Dominica and the Dominican Republic to open such facilities have apparently failed, Administration officials made clear that they expected the Dominican Republic in particular to bear a greater burden.


In imposing the new restrictions, the White House also said that Bush had called for an “intensification” of humanitarian assistance efforts in Haiti as requested last week by the Organization of American States.

The decision to impose the new cordon around Haiti is certain to please the Defense Department, which has administered the camp at Guantanamo Bay but has been wary of making an open-ended commitment to the facility.

The action appears to leave in limbo a group of more than 300 Haitians who have tested positive for the HIV virus and have been quarantined with their families in a separate Guantanamo Bay camp.

These Haitians have qualified for refugee status in the United States. But a Bush Administration policy bars HIV carriers from entering the country.

Times staff writers Robin Wright and Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this story.