Haitians in voyage of despair

Their boat, with typical Haitian optimism, was named Espoir en Dieu (Hope in God). Neither the United States intervention in their country, it seems, nor the presence of United Nations peace-keepers, had increased their hopes of a better future.

Even hardened US Coast Guards were shocked on Sunday to find 115 Haitians, 37 of them women, jammed like sardines in a hidden, sealed compartment on a rickety fishing boat a few hundred yards off Miami's tourist beaches.The Haitians got to set foot, shakily, in the Land of the Free, but probably not for long.

Under US policy, which views Haitians as economic rather than political refugees, they are likely to be sent home, or at best to the already-packed refugee camps at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Espoir en Dieu, a 65-foot wooden vessel, was spotted only a few hundred yards from Miami Beach before dawn on Sunday. Suspicious over its lack of navigational lights, the Coast Guard ordered its three-man crew to follow them to shore.

"We were checking it out when we heard noises from behind a partition above the engine room," said a Coast Guard officer. "When we broke through the partition, we saw them in there, in a compartment sealed but for air holes.'' In the compartment - six feet high, six feet wide and 20 feet deep - the 115 refugees must have been standing for days on the 500- mile trip, with little or no food or water and relieving themselves where they stood.

Coast Guard officials suspect the three crewmen, who were detained, formed a smuggling gang who charged the refugees their life savings from the sale of livestock, probably a few hundred dollars each, to get them to the United States. The refugees were handed over to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service and taken to the Krome detention centre, south of Miami, for questioning.

Of the other 128 Haitians picked up by the Coast Guard so far this year, all were repatriated to Haiti. Although President Bill Clinton hardened his policy on Cuban boat people last year - sending all those intercepted at sea to Guantanamo - Cubans who made it to US shores have virtually all been allowed to stay. Not so the Haitians. Even during the military regime overthrown by the Americans last year, Haitians were not considered to have a political asylum claim.

The refugee group was the largest caught in recent months off Florida. The conditions they endured brought home the fact that, despite the six- month US intervention and the apparent return of democracy, despair and starvation remain.

Since the US formally pulled out its troops on 31 March, 2,500 remain as part of the UN force, there have been violent demonstrations in demand for jobs. Although the United States talks of $1.2bn (£760m) in pledged foreign aid, little has so far filtered down to the level of filling bellies.

Haiti has arguably become the poorest nation in the world. Per capita income has fallen over the last three years from $320 to $220 a year. Since that average figure includes the wealthy and the minority of decent wage-earners, the majority lives on even less than that.