Statement of Wendy Young,
Director of Government Relations
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children
Briefing on U.S. Policy toward Haitian Refugees
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
October 1, 2002
Good morning. On behalf of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, I would like to thank Representative Ros-Lehtinen and the Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights for Sponsoring this briefing on the treatment of Haitian refugees.
The Women's Commission is the first organization in the United States dedicated solely to speaking out on behalf of women and children Uprooted by armed conflict or persecution. It seeks to improve the lives of refugee women, children, and youth through a vigorous program of research and advocacy and by acting as a technical resource. In 1995, the Women's Commission launched a project to assess the treatment of women and children asylum seekers in the United States, including their treatment while held in detention by the Immigration and Naturalization Service(INS) and their ability to access the U.S. asylum system.
In August 2002, the Women's Commission sponsored a delegation of refugee and Haiti experts to evaluate the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States and the Dominican Republic. The delegation included representatives from the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, the media, as well as the Women's Commission itself. It interviewed Haitian asylum seekers and their families, as well as nongovernmental organizations and government officials working with the refugees, in both countries.
The Women's Commission is gravely concerned about the lack of access that Haitian asylum seekers have to the asylum systems of both the United States and the Dominican Republic. In both countries, asylum seekers with potentially strong refugee claims are frequently unable to obtain the assistance they need to present their asylum claims and suffer difficult conditions that threaten their safety and well-being while waiting for decisions on their refugee claims. Haitians are also at risk of force return to their home country; this is particularly troubling in light of the deteriorating human rights situation in Haiti.
Following is a brief summary of the findings of the delegation.
Treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers in the United States
In December 2001, a boatload of almost 200 Haitians ran aground off the coast of Florida. Included in the group were approximately 26 women and 14 children. Most of the Haitians were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken into custody by the INS. Pursuant to the expedited removal system,they were interviewed by INS asylum officers, who found that all but two of the Haitians had a "credible fear" of persecution in Haiti.
The past practice of the INS Miami District has been to release
asylum seekers who establish that they have a credible fear of persecution. In fact, that continues to be the case for all other nationalities other than Haitians, who have been subjected to disparate treatment that includes prolonged detention and expedited processing of their asylum cases.
Shortly after the December 2001 boatload of Haitians arrived, INS
Headquarters in Washington, DC issued a directive to its Miami District not to release Haitian asylum seekers without its explicit approval. INS'stated rationale for the directive was to deter Haitians from making the dangerous voyage by boat. However, this rationale was undermined by the INS' initial decision to also detain Haitians who arrived by plane.
After issuance of this policy, male Haitians were detained in the Krome Service Processing Center, families and some unaccompanied children in a local Miami hotel, other unaccompanied children in the Boystown Children's Shelter, and the women in two county facilities. only unaccompanied children and pregnant women were deemed eligible for release.
The Haitian women were initially detained for eight months in the Turner Guilford Knight (TGK) Correctional Center, a maximum security Miami-Dade county prison. The Women's Commission has documented numerous problems with conditions of detention in TGK. Such problems include inadequate medical care to address even critical conditions such as diabetes, a lack of accessible translation services, inedible food, extremely limited access to the outdoors, and separation of families. Attorneys representing the women often wait hours to visit their clients and are not provided private interview rooms to conduct confidential interviews.
Finally, responding in part to pressure from the Miami community and refugee advocates, the INS Miami District transferred detained women asylum seekers, including Haitians, to the Broward County Work Release Center on August 26, 2002.
Four days after this transfer, the Women's Commission was provided a thorough tour of the Broward County facility and interviewed Haitian women detainees. The facility generally provides a more open living environment. Women are allowed to wear street clothing rather than prison uniforms. They are provided with multiple activities, including English, acculturation, and life skill classes. The outdoor exercise area is spacious and equipped with sports equipment. The women themselves described Broward County as a significant improvement over the TGK facility. In short, while the women are not allowed to leave the premises and are monitored by staff, the facility is sufficient for the short-term detention of asylum seekers pending a finding that they have a credible fear of persecution.
However, several concerns remain outstanding. First is the continued detention of Haitian women from the December boat arrival even after they have established a credible fear of persecution. Regardless of the improvements in the conditions of their detention that the transfer to Broward County might represent, it is disturbing that the Haitians
have been singled out and subjected to prolonged detention.
It is also disturbing that the Broward facility-like Krome-has a history of sexual harassment problems. While the facility administrator
outlined steps that the facility has taken to ensure that such abuses do not reoccur, it is critical that the facility be closely monitored by NGOs, the UNHCR, and most importantly, the INS itself to confirm that such abuses are not repeated.
While the Broward facility staff has expressed an openness to facilitating the ability of attorneys to visit their clients and to speak with new arrivals, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center has reported that this flexibility is not shared by the INS Miami District. Attorneys have raised concerns that the INS is inhibiting them from visiting their detained clients by placing onerous paperwork requirements on them before every visit.
Finally, the Women's Commission is concerned by the INS' ongoing policy of splitting family members while in detention. For example, we
interviewed a Haitian father whose wife and child had been transferred thousands of miles away to a family detention center in Pennsylvania. They had not seen or spoken to each other for almost three months.
Fast-Tracked Asylum Adjudications
In addition to being subjected to prolonged detention, the Haitian asylum seekers who arrived in the United States in December 2001 were
subjected to accelerated scheduling and processing of their removal proceedings. Additional immigration judges were posted to the Krome Service Processing Center to hear Haitian cases. As a result, Haitians were subject to very quick calendaring of their cases, and most were forced to appear before a judge without representation. Many prepared their English-language asylum forms without legal or translation assistance.
According to attorneys based in Miami, immigration judges then conducted cursory hearings that lasted only 30 minutes to one hour. This included time for translation. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the claimants were denied asylum; by June 2002, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center had reported that it had filed almost 100 appeals with the Board of Immigration Appeals, most for claimants who had appeared before an immigration judge unrepresented.
Legal representation is critical to the ability of asylum seekers to
successfully gain refugee protection in the United States. Georgetown
University has found that asylum seekers are four to six times more likely to win their asylum cases when they are represented by counsel.
Returned Haitians Subjected to Further Human Rights Abuses
Of the 167 Haitians who have been subjected to prolonged detention, Almost 50 have since been deported. Detainees are deported in groups by
the INS and are subjected to handcuffing and shackling during transport. Once returned, they are transferred to the custody of Haitian authorities. There is increasing evidence that returned Haitians are subject to further human rights abuses upon their return.
Haitians who have been deported by the INS have reported that Haitian authorities met them at the airport in Port-au-Prince. The returnees were then transferred to Delmas 33, a prison known for its extremely Hazardous living conditions.
A woman whom the Women's Commission interviewed has reported that while in Delmas she was held in one cell with more than 60 women, some of whom had committed violent crimes. Others were very sick or pregnant. One woman was there with a newborn infant. The women had only one cot for every three women. They were provided no food or water. There were no toilet facilities, forcing the detainees to urinate and defecate on the floor.
The woman was held at Delmas 33 for two days until her family was able to locate her. They then were forced to pay a large fine (approximately U.S.) to obtain her release. The woman reported that there were two other women in a similar situation who were deported at the same time as she who were also jailed and fined.
Upon her release, the woman returned to Gonaives, where she and her
Family resided. She reported that she experienced significant abuse and harassment from CIMO, a government security force supported by the
Aristide government. Her mother's restaurant was sprayed with gun fire. She and her brother-in-law were later stopped by the same group, which hit her on the back and chest with their rifles. She was hospitalized after she began to spit up blood. She reported that her brother-in-law suffered more injuries, including a blow to his head.
The woman has since been in hiding. She told the Women's Commission
That she will likely try to flee Haiti again, as she fears for her life.
Other returnees have reported similar experiences. It is disturbing
That the INS continues to deport Haitians from the December boat arrival in the face of the deteriorating human right situation and political instability now going on in Gonaives, from where the vast majority of the asylum seekers originate.
U.S. Policy Based on Goal of Deterrence
The INS has admitted in the context of a federal lawsuit that the
Decision not to parole Haitian asylum seekers who arrived on the December boat was an attempt to deter a mass exodus from Haiti to the United States. Detention as a means to deter the arrival of asylum seekers is in clear violation of international law and undermines U.S. asylum policy as a tool of protection.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the international body with The primary mandate to protect refugees, has clearly stated that when
detention is used as a deterrent, it is contrary to international standards. It has noted in an advisory opinion requested by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center that "the detention of asylum seekers in furtherance of a policy to deter future arrivals does not fall within any of the exceptional grounds for detention and is contrary to the principles underlying the international protection regime." It further concluded that detention of asylum seekers based on their national origin is discriminatory and constitutes arbitrary detention under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Further evidence supporting the conclusion that the primary goal of the U.S. government is to deter and prevent an influx of Haitian refugees is supported by the ongoing practice of interdicting Haitian asylum seekers on the high seas. When the U.S. Coast Guard interdicts Haitians onboard vessels , it immediately returns them to Haiti, unless the individual affirmatively steps forward and expresses a fear of return. In those limited cases, an INS asylum officer is flown to the Coast Guard cutter to conduct a credible fear interview.
Those who establish a credible fear, however, are still prevented from coming to U.S. shores. Instead, they are transferred to Guatanamo
Bay, Cuba where they are provided an interview with another INS asylum
officer without benefit of counsel. Those few individuals who have been found to qualify for refugee status are again prevented from coming to the United States. Instead, they are resettled in Central American countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua.
Treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers in the Dominican Republic
The United States is not alone in the implementation of policies
that undermine the ability of Haitian asylum seekers to obtain the
protection they require. The Women's Commission has also assessed the treatment of Haitians who seek refuge in the Dominican Republic and found serious violations of their rights and a fundamental absence of meaningful protection.
The Women's Commission interviewed more than a dozen Haitians who have applied for asylum in the Dominican Republic. Included in this number were former journalists, political documentary film makers, social service advocates, and political candidates who had run against the ruling party. All reported having experienced serious political persecution in Haiti. Many were residing in the Dominican Republic with their families.
Despite having entered the Dominican Republic in 2001, none had yet to receive a decision on their asylum applications. Service providers working with the Haitians reported that the board charged with adjudicating asylum claims rarely meets, resulting in a backlog of several hundred pending claims.
Haitians who have applied for asylum are not provided authorization to work in the Dominican Republic. As a result, the asylum seekers
reported that they and their families are barely able to subsist. In addition, their children are generally not able to attend school, because they cannot afford the school fees. One child who was attending school reported that the Dominican children frequently beat him up.
Several asylum seekers also noted that they are subject to repeated harassment and abuse both from the general Dominican population as
well as from government authorities. When they report such abuses, they indicated that the Dominican police do not follow up on their reports.
One father who was accompanied by his wife and three young children concluded, "I don't want asylum in the D.R. anymore. It's no different here than in Haiti."
Haitians living in the Dominican Republican are in effect living in limbo,unwelcome in their host country but unable to return home.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Given the escalating political instability and human rights abuses In Haiti, it is critical that the United States and countries in the
Caribbean region allow full access to Haitian asylum seekers and
Offer protection to those found to have a well-founded fear of
The Women's Commission offers the following recommendations:
* The United States must discontinue its prolonged and arbitrary detention of Haitian asylum seekers and facilitate their release in keeping with the parole policy in place for asylum seekers of other nationalities who are held in the custody of the Miami INS District.
* The United States must discontinue its interdiction policy for
Haitian asylum seekers under which asylum seekers are generally
denied a meaningful opportunity to present their asylum claims.
* At a minimum, Haitians who are interdicted on the high seas
be provided a credible fear screening before they are repatriated.
Such screenings should ideally occur on land after the asylum seeker has been provided an opportunity to rest and prepare for the interview.
* In light of the danger posed by boat travel to the United
States, the State Department should consider implementing in-country refugee processing in Haiti. This is especially important if the political unrestin Haiti continues.
* No asylum interview or proceeding that involves a Haitian asylum seeker before either an INS asylum officer or an immigration judge should be expedited or summarily conducted in any fashion.
* Families should not be divided while in detention. They should either be released or housed together.
* The United States government and the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees should encourage the government of the Dominican Republic To implement a meaningful asylum process.
* The United States should consider offering resettlement to Haitian refugees residing in the Dominican Republic.
Thank you for the opportunity to share the views of the Women's Commission with you today. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.