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Monday, January 09, 2006 

From Haiti: No place to run from violence

For all his travails, Theodore Fritz is a fortunate man. His wife, Bergel Mirléne, isn't so lucky. Their story shows how gang violence and lack of security drive so many to flee Haiti. Their situation also is an indictment of the U.S. interdiction policy that denies Haitian asylum seekers a fair chance to make their case.

Awaiting settlement

Mr. Fritz, a radio journalist who easily could have been killed by gang members in Port-au-Prince, fled by sea. He was the only Haitian to be granted refugee status out of 1,850 Haitians interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard last year. When the gangsters couldn't find him, they beat his wife unconscious. Ms. Mirléne lost the baby she was carrying and has a metal plate in one leg because of her injuries.

More than a year later, Mr. Fritz is at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, awaiting resettlement to a third country, hopefully Canada. His wife remains in Port-au-Prince, in need of medical attention and hiding from the gangsters. In Haiti, there is no foreign embassy where she might seek protection.

With all the violence in Haiti, it's inconceivable to think that Mr. Fritz was the only person with a bona-fide asylum claim. Yet he was among only nine Haitians who showed enough of a ''fear'' of repatriation to warrant screening by immigration authorities while aboard cutters. Of those nine, he was the only one taken to the naval base, where he persuaded a U.S. asylum officer that his claim was legitimate.

His case was helped by documentation: Mr. Fritz carried a press pass and a note, translated into English by a U.S. reporter, that said he feared danger in Haiti.

U.S. policy dictates that Coast Guard officers, most of whom speak no Creole and aren't refugee specialists, can refer interdicted Haitians for asylum screening only when they have documents suggesting their life is endangered or have physical evidence of torture or persecution -- a tough standard for people on the run. Even when a Haitian passes the ''shout test'' by aggressively expressing fear, he may end up screened via phone. All this, including body searches and crowding, chills Haitians from making a claim.

No safe haven

This interdiction policy denies the rights of persecuted Haitians to seek safe haven, violates international refugee law and risks sending people to face persecution or death.

The State Department should speed Mr. Fritz's resettlement and find a way to reunite him with his wife, who has as good a claim to refugee status as he does. State also should join the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. agencies to reform this unjustifiable policy.

The Miami Herald

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