- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

The U.S. Coast Guard yesterday began repatriating Haitian refugees directly back to their strife-torn island nation, turning over 531 rescued from 13 boats in the Windward Passage to the Haitian coast guard in Port-au-Prince.

Homeland Security spokesman William Strassberger said the repatriation was being conducted in coordination with Haitian authorities. He said the refugees had been detained at sea, aboard three Coast Guard cutters since Feb. 21.

“It is our intention, upon rescuing Haitian migrants from peril at sea aboard grossly overloaded and unseaworthy vessels, to immediately repatriate them in a safe and secure manner,” said Rear Adm. Harvey Johnson, commandant of the 7th Coast Guard District.

“While we have seen a recent surge in migrants from Haiti, at this time there are no indicators of a mass migration,” Adm. Johnson said.

Coast Guard officials said that while Haitian refugees are being discovered in the Windward Passage since armed revolt erupted Feb. 5 in that Caribbean nation, the number pales in comparison to the early 1990s — when Coast Guard cutters sometimes came across as many as 3,000 refugees in a single day.

While leaders of Miami’s Haitian-American community and the Congressional Black Caucus have demanded that President Bush allow Haitians temporary protective status until problems are resolved in Haiti, Mr. Bush has repeated the government’s stand that any Haitian migrants trying to reach U.S. shores would be turned back.

“I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shores. That message needs to be very clear as well to the Haitian people,” Mr. Bush said earlier this week. “We will have a robust presence with an effective strategy, and so we strongly encourage the Haitian people to stay home as we work to effect a peaceful solution to this problem.”

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has warned that an escalation of fighting in his country could trigger an exodus of boat people.

The repatriations were completed yesterday by the Coast Guard cutters Valiant, which transported 290 migrants to Port-au-Prince, and the Vigilant, which delivered another 241. The patrol boat Nantucket escorted the cutters for safety and security.

Mr. Strassberger said the refugees were turned over to the Haitian coast guard and were met ashore by representatives from the U.S. Embassy.

He said the Coast Guard, a division of Homeland Security, is actively patrolling the Windward Passage, a stretch of ocean between Cuba and Haiti, about 600 miles southeast of Miami. This presence, he said, includes surface and air patrols by the Coast Guard and air patrols by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) long-range P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

Although U.S. officials have said the refugees would be returned home, one potential option now being explored is a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, which could hold as many as 20,000 people and could be made quickly available for any massive influx of Haitians, federal officials said.

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