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Americas Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 16:11 GMT
Haiti's desperate deportees
Andy Kershaw in Haiti
Andy Kershaw interviewing deportees held in the filthy police cell, Croix de Bouquets
By Andy Kershaw

It was like a scene from the Middle Ages. Hands groped and writhed through the greasy bars. Some snatched at food offered up to the cage. The stench of sweat, excrement and urine was enough to make me heave. But most disturbing was the gloom...

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The police cells at Croix De Bouquets, a dusty little town just north of the Haitian capital Port au Prince, are windowless, dark, fetid and as hot as a foundry.

As I stepped in from the fierce afternoon sun, for the first few seconds, I was aware only of some strange circulating globules of light. Then my vision adjusted. The globules were eyeballs.

In one cell, roughly four by four metres, 17 Haitian-born deportees from the USA were clamouring for our attention and any crumbs of hope this rare visit by outsiders might offer.

We had 150 people in here at one time...we couldn't even lie down at night

Pierre Michel Vorbe
Conditions have improved in the three months since Pierre Michel Vorbe was first banged up here back in August. "We had 105 guys in here at one time," he told me. How on earth did they all lie down at night? "We couldn't," said Pierre.

The wretched inmates of Croix De Bouquets, and hundreds of other deportees from the US in jails and police cells across Haiti, have committed no offence in this country, the poorest in the western hemisphere. They are given no indication of when they'll be released.

The 1996 Anti-Terrorist Act

Since the United States toughened up its immigration laws with the 1996 Anti-Terrorist Act (a response to the bombings at Oklahoma and the World Trade Centre in which 174 people died) any "criminal alien" - a non-US citizen convicted of aggravated felony or a drug offence - is now deported automatically after serving his or her sentence in an American jail.

Before the change in the law, deportation was at the discretion of a judge who took into account factors such as family ties, the seriousness of the offence and whether the "alien" posed any danger to society. Absurdly, the law is also retroactive.

Someone who served their time for, say, possession of a small quantity of marijuana back in the 1970s and has led an exemplary and useful life since is as vulnerable to deportation as mass-murderer emerging from an American prison this week.

Minor offences

Michelle Karshan
Michelle Karshan, founder of the NGO Chans Altenativ
According to Michelle Karshan, an American in Port au Prince who runs Chans Alternativ, a small-change funded NGO to help the deportees, very few of them are hardened or dangerous criminals. "The way the Act has been implemented has victimised hundreds and thousands of immigrants, first-time offenders, non-violent offenders and people who committed crimes twenty years ago."

Neither does the USA's mandatory deportation policy take into account deportees' familiarity - or lack of it - with the country to which they are returned in shackles. I met many bewildered and frightened men in Haiti's jails who had been taken by their parents to live legitimately in the States as babies.

Their passports may say Haitian but in most cases they have no knowledge of the country, can't speak the Creole language and have no relatives there. (In a Haitian prison if you have no one on the outside to bring you food, you go hungry). And it almost goes without saying that the US does not recognise that a "criminal alien" who has lived all his adult life in States is the product of an American not Haitian criminal culture.

Deportee in shack
The deportee, Augustin St Vil, now living in a shack in Cite Soleil
Small wonder then that the Haitian government is angry at what it sees as the US's dumping of undesirables on a country which has neither the money nor the infrastrucures to deal with them and which already has severe crime problems of its own.

Why, I asked president-elect Jean Bertrand Aristide - a veteran champion of human rights - are the deportees in jail in a country in which they have committed no crime, often in conditions so revolting they might be regarded as a form of torture?

"We will address this issue with the United States and, of course, the solution will emerge from that process where dialogue is so linked to peace."

Aristide poster
Girl at presidential election rally in support of Jean Bertrand Aristide
Huh? The former firebrand has become the professional politician. Behind the bland response lies a stark paralysis: Haiti can't think of anything else to do with its unwanted guests.

Some officials say that the deportees simply can't be let loose at the airport because, in a country with 85% unemployment, a homeless, jobless ex-crack dealer from Brooklyn will inevitably resort to crime to survive on the teeming streets of Port au Prince. There is a certain logic to the argument though no official could actually provide me with figures for the number of freed deportees who had re-offended in Haiti.

A more sinister motive may also explain these illegal detentions: nearly all incarcerated deportees I spoke to had been asked for bribes in exchange for freedom, sometimes by police or prison officials. Travis Joliceur, released from the foul National Penetentiary on the day I spoke to him, recalled bogus lawyers coming to the cells. "Guys came up here saying 'Now, give us US$50,000 and I'll get you out in two or three days. They (the deportees) are still in there and they never see the guys again."

Guys came up here, saying 'Give us US$50,000 and I'll get you out'

Travis Joliceur

Through the persistence of Michelle Karshan, Travis's liberty cost him nothing. He's out but he fears he will never see his three small children again and he's terrified about his future in Haiti. Deportees are viewed as pariahs by other Haitians. Sometimes it seems all of Haiti would like to get out of Haiti and those like Travis are despised for blowing their big chance in the Promised Land. But compared with other deportees Travis can count himself lucky.

The sad story of Claudette Etienne

Claudette Etienne fled the terrors of Baby Doc Duvalier in the early 80s, arriving in Florida in a leaky boat. She was granted residency and in Miami she married and started a family. In 1997 she was put on probation for one year following a domestic argument. In 1999 she was charged with selling a small amount of cocaine. Again, the authorities did not think her offence deserved a custodial sentence. But in February of this year she was unexpectedly hauled into the Krome immigration detention centre in Miami. Seven months later she was bundled on to a plane to Port au Prince.

The Port au Prince police station where Claudette was held
Claudette's husband Wilfred, lives in Miami's Little Haiti with their two children. He juggles several cleaning jobs to keep his head above the water. Slumped across the kitchen table he looks exhausted even before he starts his night-shift. "I didn't even know when they sent her to Haiti," he says. The first he knew of her deportation was a phone call to say she was in Port au Prince.

Michelle Karshan showed me a copy of a letter Claudette had sent to an immigration officer just before her deportation: "Please reconsider my custody situation. I am still with my husband and we are still in love. Our two children are here in Miami and living with him. He works and they attend elementary school. The crimes I did were an argument with my husband and we forgave each other. The drug crime was because I needed the money for my children. I made some bad mistakes and I won't do them again. I'm sorry. Please reconsider my custody. I miss my children terribly."

I'm sorry. Please reconsider my custody. I miss my children terribly

Claudette Etienne
On arrival in Haiti, Claudette was put in a crowded cell at a Port au Prince police station. She was given no food. After two days she developed serious dysentery. On the fourth day she was transferred to hospital. Two hours after admission she was dead. Her body is still lying in the Port au Prince morgue. Wilfred doesn't have the money to bring Claudette home.

It's tragic cases like Claudette's which have now spurred a number of US Congressmen to push for reform of the Anti-Terrorist Act.

ricardo haiti rap
raps about his plight ....
talks about the impact of the Anti-Terrorist Act
See also:

30 Nov 00 | Americas
03 Jan 00 | Americas
23 Nov 00 | Americas
16 May 00 | Americas
09 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

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