The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004

Coast Guard continues increased vigilance for Haitian migrants


In the hours after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left the country, the U.S. Coast Guard continued its beefed-up vigilance over the 600-mile stretch between the United States and Haiti -- but said authorities had no indication of a mass migration.

''Apparently, Haitians for the most part are remaining home in Haiti, and that is a good thing,'' said Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. ``We are urging people not to take to the sea in overcrowded, poorly constructed vessels for a journey that could end their lives.''

Although the Coast Guard has intercepted and repatriated sizable groups of Haitians as the country rapidly descended into chaos, the agency says the numbers are not unusual.

Since Feb. 21, the Coast Guard has sent 867 migrants back to Haiti, including a group of 336 Haitians returned to Port-au-Prince on Saturday. The group, traveling on two rickety boats, were picked up Friday, in the Windward Passage, the water passage between Haiti and Cuba.

Last year, the Coast Guard repatriated 1,490 Haitians. During the last large exodus between 1991 and 1994, years marked by massive unrest and migration from Haiti, the Coast Guard interdicted and repatriated more than 50,000 Haitians trying to flee the island.

The Coast Guard, working with the Department of Homeland security, has increased its resources along the waters between the U.S. and Haiti in recent days, Diaz said.

Air and sea resources in the Windward Passage, about 600 miles southeast of Miami, include 110-foot patrol boats, several medium- and high-endurance Coast Guard cutters as well as helicopters and airplanes overheard. In addition, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deployed long-range maritime patrol aircraft.

''We want to ensure that anyone who has taken to the seas can be rescued,'' said Diaz.

The 270-foot cutter Spencer, based in Boston, and the 210-foot Diligence, out of in Wilmington, N.C., repatriated the latest group of migrants.

Diaz said the agency has an obligation to keep a close eye on the waters surrounding the troubled Caribbean nation -- both as a deterrent, and as rescuers of those that do, inevitably, set out to sea.