Haiti Archives 1995-1996
22/08/95 HAITI-REFUGEES: Life Still Hard After Aristide's Second Coming by Dan Coughlin

Copyright 1995 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.

Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

-AU-PRINCE, Aug 22 (IPS) – Hope has turned into despair for those Haitian refugees persuaded to return after U.S. military muscle restored President Jean Bertrand Aristide to office last September.

They are taking to the high seas again, threatening a replay of the refugee crisis that featured in world headlines up to a year ago – and stimulated the outcry that forced the U.S.-led military intervention of the Caribbean nation.

Reports reaching here from Miami said on Monday the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted an 80-foot freighter packed with more than 400 Haitians. Three refugees died in the crowded conditions. The Coast Guard said two others drowned when they jumped overboard.

In an interview with IPS before news of that interception broke, one former refugee who returned to Haiti hopeful based on the promise of post-Aristide improvement, reflected the depth of frustration over the delay in attending to the needs of the returnees.

''If we don't get a response, we're going to raise an American flag, get in some boats and head for the United States again,'' said Augustin Richmond.

Human rights groups say the problem of satisfying the demands of returning refugees is ''overwhelming'', and frustration levels are running high.

Human rights groups and Haitian government officials estimate that some 400,000 people were internally displaced during the three years a military regime ruled Haiti following Aristide's overthrow. Thousands more took to the high seas.

Some 30,000 Haitians refugees and migrant workers expelled from more than half a dozen countries around the Caribbean region since Aristide's return, have returned home.

The United States returned around 20,000 Haitians from Guantanamo Bay, the military base on the island of Cuba which was used as a holding port for the many who left Haiti in search of a better life in the United States.

Added to that are some 5,000 Haitians – and those with Haitian ancestry – who have been expelled from the Bahamas in recent months. Thousands more have been streaming to Haiti from the Dominican Republic.

They, in turn, have been joined by returnees from as far away as Honduras and Russia. And, now, France and Canada are making rumblings about hundreds, and even thousands, of unwanted Haitian nationals within their borders.

''The funding appeals (for refugee reintegration programmes) that we made back in November have not yet resulted in any contributions,'' said Mirza Hussein of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Haiti, echoing a familiar refrain found at a host of other aid organizations here.

''The refugees came back, they got almost no welcome, and they feel that their contribution to the return of Aristide has not been recognized and the they feel entitled to something,'' noted Anne Fuller of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR).

Earlier this month, the anger of the former refugees boiled over at a chaotic weekend meeting at a school in Port-au-Prince. Police had to be called as several dozen people demonstrated in front of the National Palace for two days, demanding government action to relieve their plight.

Santilla Olivier is symbolic of the plight of the returnees. In July of last year, Olivier, 38, reached the end of her tether.

Her husband was dead, murdered by Haiti's military regime. A biting international embargo was causing her family to suffer. Olivier sold all of her possessions and packed her two children off to relatives.

Paying about 100 US dollars, she boarded a boat in her hometown in the southwest of the country and headed towards the United States. Her journey ended in confinement.

For seven months she was held at the U.S. navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. authorities eventually persuaded Olivier to return to Haiti after the return of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide from exile.

''They told me to come back. They said the president returned and everything was going to be all right,'' she said.

Returning to Haiti this past January with a sick infant born at Guantanamo Bay and little else, she found that things were far from being all right. Homeless and jobless, the former market woman now lives in this capital, scraping by to make ends meet.

''We're on the street, with our arms open, and we are demanding that the rulers of the country help us because we are suffering and because we struggled for the return of President Aristide,'' said 32-year-old Sidieu Paul.

He was referring to the influence which the plight of Haitian refugees had in pressuring the international community to restore Haiti's first democratically-elected president.

'''We took a boat and lost everything — houses, land, animals — to go to Guantanamo. Now, we have nothing, no money and nor work,'' added Pierre Joseph.

A 21-year-old student from the southwestern town of Petit Goave, earlier this month he joined about 700 other former refugees at a meeting in Port-au-Prince.

Despite the magnitude of the crisis, there is not much evidence that anything meaningful is being done to alleviate the hardship of returnees.

This is despite the fact that some 1.2 billion US dollars worth of loans and aid have been pledged by donors over the next two years – and the involvement of many regional states in repatriating former refugees or migrant workers.

Indeed, the Haitian government's newly created Office of National Migration (ONM), charged with helping to reintegrate returnees, is barely up and running.

With a staff of only three, a tiny budget, and not even a functioning telephone or office, the organization can do little.

''We're a symbolic presence,'' acknowledged Wilfrid Suprena, ONM's coordinator. ''But I think with a lot of goodwill — and funding — we can find solutions to some of the problems of the returnees.''

''Clearly, there is a need for a coordinated strategy for returnees — refugees or returning migrant labor. But the issue is to what extent the aid should be targeted to individual returnees or to the larger communities that are receiving people,'' said UNHCR's Khan. ''The thinking (of the development agencies) is on the latter.''

Still, these type of ''total development'' packages remain rare, and no donors are backing projects specifically dealing with refugee or migrant worker reintegration.

Moreover, many former refugees, like Santilia Olivier, are not resettling in their home towns. Rather, a sizable percentage are staying in Port-au-Prince, or other large cities, where they believe prospects for work are better. (END/IPS/DC/95)

Origin: Amsterdam/HAITI-REFUGEES/

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