In the teeming Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, a ritual is repeated with tragic regularity: groups of Haitians return after failing in attempts to illegally enter the United States. For one couple, Josène Sarius, 20, and her husband, Amos Constance, 27, their hope for escape ended when they walked down the gangway of the gleaming 210-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Diligence. Behind them came 70 other migrants—barefoot, lean and emptyhanded. Four days earlier their small wooden sailboat, Pinto, had broken up on reefs 100 miles east of Miami. There, the Coast Guard pulled them from the water and returned them to Haiti.
In her village of Latapie, 180 km north of Port-au-Prince, Sarius is subdued and sheepish: “I left because I had problems—no work, no money, no land,” she told Maclean’s. Now her problems are compounded by what some observers, including international aid agencies, claim is the danger of government reprisals against those who try and fail to reach the United States.
Since the early 1970s thousands have
fled from Haiti’s political repression and poverty; its average annual per capital income of $300 (U.S.) makes it the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. Most tried to reach the Florida coastline in dangerously overcrowded boats. Many drowned. In October, 1981, the bodies of 33 refugees washed ashore in front of Miami condominiums. Still, it is estimated that more than 50,000 mostly illiterate Haitians managed to illegally enter the United States. Under pressure from Florida officials, President Ronald Reagan ordered a “get tough” policy to control the illegal traffic in 1981. But after a lull, the human flood has resumed. In the last four months of 1984 alone, more than 2,000 Boat People were intercepted by the Coast Guard—a 300per-cent increase over 1983.
The Reagan administration supports the anti-Communist regime of President-for-life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, but civil liberties groups demanded safeguards for the returned Haitians. According to Amnesty International, illegal migrants caught in Haitian waters by Haitian authorities have been imprisoned and beaten.
For its part, the Haitian government denies that the would-be emigrants face punitive measures. Said Jean Guy Marie-Louis, a Haitian official who oversees the return of would-be emigrants: “Nothing will happen to them—they are not guilty. They are poor and victims of the organizers of these trips.”
When they returned, Sarius and Constance were met at the port by a Creolespeaking U.S. Embassy official who listed their names and addresses for follow-up interviews. The Haitian Red Cross gave each returning migrant $20 and a small hamper of food and clothes. Because they are on that list, Sarius and Constance know they will not suffer reprisals: American officials say refugees known to international authorities are not harmed.
For Constance and Sarius it is punishment enough to return to the poverty that they tried to flee. They were clearly happy to see their neighbors and family members who gathered in front of their mud and thatch hut. But, said Sarius, “I have nothing to do here.” Neither she nor Constance can read or write. They do not own any land.
At best, Constance may be able to earn $1 a day working in the rice fields. Said a neighbor, Joanes Pierre: “Their parents are very poor and made a lot of expense to send them to Miami. Now it will be worse.” Added Constance: “We’ll walk to the Catholic church, and I’ll pray to God to give strength to my courage.” Now, Sarius and Constance must use their strength to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream.
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