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HAITI 1977-2009

It is difficult to imagine that between 1977 and 2009, at least 174,425 Haitians attempted the 700-mile journey to South Florida in “sail freighters.” These 35-50 foot shallow wood hulled boats with a single homemade sail, often without engines or electronics of any kind, carry 100 – 300 people.  Most “sail freighters” are smuggling operations costing each passenger a few hundred dollars (an amount equal to the average annual income).

The boats are so overloaded that even on those equipped with outboard motors the engines burn out quickly, leaving passengers at the mercy of the currents. No accurate study of death rates has been conducted but the loss of life is high, probably exceeding the 25-50% fatalities estimated for Cubans and Dominicans respectively.

Across nine U.S. presidential administrations, since the first recorded Haitian shipload was denied asylum in 1963, the U.S. response to Haitian sea migrants has been one of resolute rejection:
•    1981 President Reagan prohibited entry to the U.S. from the high seas and signed an agreement with Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier for direct repatriation of Haitians picked up at sea;
•    1992 President George H. W. Bush ordered Haitians returned without human rights screening; President Clinton continued the policy though he had campaigned on a promise to end it;
•    1991-2 and again in 1994-6 tens of thousands of Haitians interdicted at sea were held in detention in Guantánamo;
•    1980 at Krome Detention Center and 1994 in Guantánamo, Haitians were repatriated by force even as Cubans held in adjoining camps were admitted;
•    2001 a 100% detention policy for Haitians was ordered by the Attorney General despite a general policy listing asylum seekers as the lowest priority for detention.

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Last modified January 21, 2011 2:45:22 PM EST