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U.S. Bars Entry for Haiti Refugees Found at Sea : Caribbean: Asylum-seekers to be sent to Panama, other nations under new policy. Navy dispatching 2,000 Marines.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Clinton Administration slammed the door on Haitian refugees Tuesday, announcing that those picked up at sea no longer will be allowed into the United States under any circumstances but will be sent instead to camps in Panama and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

At the same time, in a stark warning to the Haitian military junta that the United States is moving more seriously toward an invasion if the ruling officials do not resign, the Navy announced the dispatch of a four-ship amphibious group--including 2,000 Marines--to the Caribbean.

An invasion is “not imminent,” said William H. Gray III, President Clinton’s special envoy to Haiti, adding that he defined “imminent” as “something that is going to happen in a few days.”

Administration officials said Clinton will wait to see how the new rules on asylum-seekers work before making any decision on an invasion.

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This new plan--a sharp departure from the previous U.S. approach--will allow Haitians to be considered for political asylum in the United States if they apply at the three U.S. consular stations in Haiti, Gray said. But “those who take to the boats will not have resettlement possibilities in the United States.”

Clinton and his aides hope the new policy will shut off the massive stream of refugees leaving the island nation in small, often unseaworthy boats. Over 12,500 have been picked up at sea by American vessels in the last 12 days.

But refugee advocates criticized the new policy, saying Haitians who seek asylum at the consulates face reprisals from the military and its allies.

International treaties signed by the United States provide that those who can demonstrate a fear of persecution in their homelands are entitled to refuge. But no treaty guarantees that the refuge must be in the United States. Further, the Supreme Court has held that, unlike refugees who reach U.S. soil and claim asylum, those picked up on the high seas have no legal claim to remain in the United States until their plea is considered.

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Administration officials were quick to assert that the new policy meets the legal and humanitarian requirements of sheltering refugees.

“Boat people will continue to be rescued at sea by the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy,” Gray told reporters at the White House. “Those boat people who are in need of protection will be given the opportunity to obtain it in safe-haven camps.”

The crisis caused by refugees fleeing Haiti “is not a problem of the United States alone,” he said. “It is a hemispheric problem.”

Tuesday’s announcement marked the latest twist in a shifting policy under which two Administrations have tried to cope with the flow of refugees from Haiti. Until May, 1992, the U.S. government picked up Haitians at sea and took them to Florida, where they could make asylum claims.

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But faced with an outpouring of refugees, the George Bush Administration declared that all Haitians would be forcibly returned to their country, regardless of their status.

Clinton criticized that policy in his campaign but adopted it anyway and followed it until a few weeks ago, when he declared the government would begin giving Haitians hearings aboard the hospital ship Comfort, moored off Jamaica.

Since then, the number of Haitians plucked from small, often leaky boats by the Coast Guard and the Navy has escalated wildly, reaching 3,247 on Monday alone, the Navy and Coast Guard reported. A total of 2,602 more were rescued Tuesday, Coast Guard officials said. Almost 200 more Haitians are known to have died at sea, including about 150 believed to have died when a boat capsized off the island’s west coast Monday.

Of Haitians picked up in the last several weeks, 1,705 had been interviewed as of early Tuesday morning; 515 of those were judged to have valid asylum claims. None have yet reached the United States. Of the 1,190 whose claims have been denied, 842 already have been sent back to Haiti.

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Those Haitians whose asylum claims have been approved will remain eligible to enter the United States, officials said.

But under the new policy, thousands not yet interviewed, including about 4,900 now camped at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as any new refugees who flee the island nation, will be sent to camps in Panama or the island nations of Dominica and Antigua. Although they may seek asylum in those spots, they will not be granted permission to enter the United States.

Haitians leaving for purely economic reasons still will be returned to Haiti. But the percentage who are returned probably will drop under the new policy, officials said.

Panama, Dominica and Antigua have agreed to take 20,000 to 30,000 refugees for up to six months, officials said--the first time since the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide almost three years ago that the United States has persuaded other nations to take large numbers of Haitians. The Bush Administration tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a similar agreement in 1992.

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The accord came after personal calls from Clinton to Panama’s president, Guillermo Endara, and several Caribbean leaders. The Administration also has agreed that the U.S. government will pay most of the program’s costs. Officials said they did not have firm figures but conceded the tab will run into millions of dollars.

One leader who apparently was not consulted before the new policy was put into place is Aristide. “President Aristide has not been available for me to have a conversation with him,” Gray said.

A spokesman for Aristide criticized the new policy. “This change in refugee policy is a step backward for the people of Haiti who are suffering,” former U.S. congressman Michael Barnes said.

While the Administration waits to see if the new policy shuts off the refugee flow, experts said the new ship deployment will give the Pentagon enough troops in the region to carry out the initial phases of an invasion, if ordered.

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Besides the 2,000 Marines on the helicopter-carrier Inchon, which will leave Norfolk, Va., today, the United States has 645 Marines on the amphibious assault ship Wasp, already steaming off Haiti’s coast.

Pentagon officials said the Inchon would be accompanied by the dock-landing ship Portland, the amphibious-transport dock-ship Trenton and the tank-landing ship Spartanburg County. Eight other Navy ships are in the area to help enforce the U.N. embargo against Haiti.

Times staff writer Kenneth Freed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.


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