THE Clinton administration yesterday bowed to pressure from Congress and humanitarian groups for a more compassionate approach towards refugees from Haiti, pledging to reintroduce screening of asylum-seekers on the high seas.
The step is a reversal of the policy introduced two years ago by President George Bush, under which any Haitians seeking sanctuary in the United States are automatically sent back to their country by the US Coast Guard. In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton termed the practice 'cruel', but announced shortly before taking office that he would not, after all, end it.
White House officials underlined yesterday that the conditions under which Haitians might be allowed into the US will not be changed. Only those considered at risk for their political activities will be taken in, not those fleeing economic hardship. The administration plans to use navy ships as floating screening centres to monitor each asylum request.
'The Haitian people will see we are not opening the floodgates to indiscriminate refugee migration into the United States but that we are going to try to find those people who have left because they have a genuine fear of persecution,' Mr Clinton said.
Leading those demanding a change from the White House has been the head of the Washington- based Trans-Africa Foundation, Randall Robinson, who went on hunger strike to publicise his position. After 27 days without food, he announced yesterday that he was ending his protest. 'I want to commend the President for taking this step,' he said. 'With it, we will have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.'
Last week, the United Nations announced a toughening of international sanctions against Haiti, and Mr Clinton warned that military intervention to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted in a 1991 coup, could not be ruled out.
Fr Aristide, in exile in Washington, welcomed the policy change as a 'step in the right direction', but added in a statement that it was not enough to protect 'the millions of Haitian citizens who continue to face increased violence in Haiti'.
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