BBC News
Sunday, 29 February, 2004

Miami's Haitians watch trouble at home

By Daniel Lak
BBC Miami correspondent

As the situation in Haiti slides further into chaos, concerns have been expressed about the plight of the Haitian people and UN officials have urged countries in the region to take in refugees trying to escape. Our correspondent met some of the Haitians who, over the years, have managed to flee and make a life for themselves in Miami.

A mournful ballad plays outside the Fasydik grocery store and movie rental shop in Miami's Little Haiti.

Signs in Haitian Creole advertise Barbancourt rum and telephone cards offering discount calls to the Caribbean.

Behind the cash register, Celine Paul says business is brisk, especially for the phone cards.

"When its hellish at home, everyone wants to call," she says, "and the news is never good. Especially not now."

The grocery store is a block away from Radio Carnivale, Little Haiti's favourite radio station. The telephones in the newsroom ring constantly, says reporter, Jacques Castinguay.

"We monitor all the Haitian media," he says, "and then we broadcast the news but people can't wait for our news bulletins. It's hard to get any work done."

Miami is home to an estimated 230,000 Haitians. There are among the city's poorest residents and an array of activist groups and service organisations has sprung up to help them.

Hard life

It's never been easy for Haitians to live in the United States, says Marleine Bastien of the Haitian Women's Association of Miami.

"We suffer from racism because we're black and because neither English nor Spanish are our first language." she says.

"There's constant talk of hundreds of thousands of our people fleeing here if things get bad in Haiti. And this is seen somehow as a threat to US national security."

Marleine Bastien and other Haitian community leaders are calling for the US government to offer their people temporary asylum if they reach America, by whatever means.

"The difference between how we are treated as asylum seekers and how Cubans are treated is remarkable. Cubans, many of whom are white skinned, seem to get in automatically whereas we are turned back almost as routinely as the Cubans are admitted," she says.

Lawyer Cheryl White of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Centre says things have got worse for Haitians since the Washington and New York terror attacks of September 2001.

"Now the Department of Homeland Security monitors all refugee and asylum claims and national security is used to refuse legitimate claims by people who are in real fear of their lives. This is preposterous and wrong."

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, Bill Strasburger, said asylum claims would still be processed fully and fairly, "although we have taken the view that Haitians have tended to be economic migrants and unless someone has a personal fear of persecution or violence, and can prove it, that view prevails".

Proud of Haiti

In recent days, as violence escalated in Haiti, hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers have taken to ships and small boats to escape their homeland.

President Bush himself has lead calls for the people of Haiti to stay in their country. The US Coast guard will turn back anyone who's taken from a ship at sea, he said.

In Little Haiti, grocery store clerk Celine Paul says her customers would love to return to their homeland if it ever becomes peaceful and prosperous.

"We are proud of Haiti, proud of our history of 200 years of independence, but right now, there's not much more to be proud of."