WASHINGTON (February 24, 2004) -- Should international efforts to stabilize the volatile situation in Haiti fail, the United States should ensure the protection of any refugees who flee the island nation, according to standards articulated today by the Chairman of the Migration Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Coadjutor Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando said that many people in Haiti have been traumatized be the recent violence there and that "extra efforts should be made to help them feel that they are safe and secure." In particular, he stated his opposition to the possible use of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to house refugees, saying "the prison-like atmosphere … would only exacerbate any trauma these refugees have experienced."
The full text of Bishop Wenski's statement follows:
"As the political crisis in Haiti worsens and the U.S. government determines its response, we appeal to the Administration to carefully consider the potential for an exodus of refugees seeking safe haven. Of course, anything the international community can do to stabilize the political situation and preclude the necessity for such exodus is the first order of business. Ideally, conditions can be created within Haiti, perhaps through the establishment of safe zones, where Haitians who fear for their lives or who are otherwise targeted for persecution can be provided protection and at least temporary assistance while efforts to reestablish stability are pursued. However, should events unfold such that people are compelled to flee, we call on our government to be guided by the following principles in responding to a refugee crisis in Haiti:
1. The safety and security of the refugees must be ensured.
"First, the United States should take steps to ensure that Haitian refugees are protected and given access to appropriate services. Many of these refugees will have been severely traumatized by their experiences and extra efforts should be made to help them feel that they are safe and secure. The United States should not place ships close to the shores of Haiti for the purpose of discouraging Haitians from fleeing violence or persecution. Neither should our country interdict refugees on the high seas and immediately return them to Haiti. As early as possible in any exodus, the particularly vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied minors, should be identified, segregated, and provided protective and other appropriate services.
2. An appropriate environment for conducting status determinations and providing access to services must be arranged quickly.
"The United States should identify appropriate locations for the processing of Haitian refugees, which allows them access to asylum adjudicators, counsel, health-care services, including mental health care, and other support services. We oppose the use of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for such processing. The prison-like atmosphere at Guantanamo Bay would only exacerbate any trauma these refugees have experienced and limit their access to much needed services, particularly the vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors.
"As an alternative, these refugees should be brought to the U.S. mainland for processing. This would help ensure more appropriate and humane conditions, including adequate housing and sanitation. It also would provide them easier access to health-care, counseling, legal representation, and asylum adjudicators.
3. Access to asylum protection should be ensured.
"Haitians should be given the opportunity to file asylum claims and have those claims adjudicated by appropriate and qualified authorities. This is best done in the United States.
4. Vulnerable groups should receive special care.
"Vulnerable groups of refugees, including unaccompanied minors, women-at-risk, and the elderly should be provided special attention.
5. Refugees should be provided access to religious services, if they so desire.
"In times of crisis some people turn to their faith traditions to seek comfort and strength. The U.S. government should ensure that the refugees have access to religious services.
"Through its various agencies, the Catholic Church in the United States is prepared to work with the Administration in the event of a refugee crisis in Haiti. We must be prepared to respond immediately to the protection needs and to the longer-term needs of our Haitian brothers and sisters and work to ensure that they maintain hope for the future as efforts to restore peace and stability are aggressively pursued."