THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SPECIAL ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT ON HAITI WILLIAM GRAY
The Briefing Room
4:20 P.M. EDT
Q Mr. Gray, can you explain why 30 percent -- we were told today that the number of Haitians being granted asylum from the Comfort, the level is about 30 percent, which is a large increase percentage-wise over the five or six percent that we had been told was the average on land. Is there something occurring that would account for a larger size of permissions because of the boat process?
MR. GRAY: Well, actually, if you look at the numbers of both the boat processing as well as the in-country processing during the same rough period of time when the ships were in operation, it is very similar; it varies between 20 and 30 percent.
I think clearly what we are seeing is a continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Haiti. That is why the President, on May 8, announced the change of policy. And I think the outflows that we are seeing now represent a continuing deterioration of that human rights situation. As you all know and has been covered by the press, there have been hundreds of killings in Haiti. And surely, we believe, that the reason for these outflows is connected to that deteriorating situation in human rights. And when you look both at in-country as well as shipboard during the same period, you see very significant changes.
Q Could I follow up, please, and ask you why it was five percent a few months ago that were granted asylum and now it's 30 percent? The question goes to what changed that more are eligible for asylum.
MR. GRAY: Well, what we've done is we've changed our whole processing procedure. Before it was in-country alone, and secondly, now we have a partnership with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees that is looking very carefully at each individual refugee request in light of those deteriorating situations. So, again, I go back to the fact that we have seen a decline in the situation in Haiti; that was the reason for the change in policy. We're not surprised by what we see because that was why the policy was changed.
Q How does that explain, though, the increase in the acceptances? I can understand how it would account for an increase in the number of applications, but how does it explain the fact that the ratio of acceptance seems to have gone up so sharply?
MR. GRAY: Well, without getting into specific detail as the interviewers go through the process, obviously if people and families are being killed, if sisters, wives being raped, the number of people who would, therefore, qualify for asylum would, therefore, significantly increase. So, therefore, if you have an increase in human rights violations it is logical that you will also have probably an increase in the number of people who can justify their claims for asylum.
And we must remember, the President made it very clear: we changed the policy because of the deteriorating human rights situation. That situation has not improved. It has continued to decline. And so the fundamental cause of the refugee problem remains the lack of democracy in Haiti. And our policy is designed to deal fundamentally with reversing that in Haiti. And until we address that problem, we will continue to see the effect, which is the refugee situation.
Q Mr. Gray, is Aristide driving -- beyond his natural interest, is he driving the U.S. policy? Is he making policy and making us dance to his tune?
MR. GRAY: No, the President of the United States is the maker of U.S. foreign policy.
Q But he seems to oppose everything we do and harden up the policy, and we seem to go along.
MR. GRAY: Well, I'm not sure that that is the case. In fact, I would seriously question that. I'm sure that as you well know, governments and governmental leaders always have a right to criticize other government and governmental leaders in things that they disagree. You can see that on international scene all the time.
Q But he prevails.
MR. GRAY: He does not determine U.S. foreign policy at all. I think -- I have not read the transcript, I have not seen it, but I am told he made some very favorable remarks about U.S. foreign policy this week at the National Press Club.
Governmental leaders will have differences of opinion. But I assure you that the President of the United States makes the U.S. foreign policy.
Q Mr. Gray, a two part question -- first, do you know if the heavy outflows of refugees in the past few days is a spike that you can tap down, or is going to be a continuing problem?
MR. GRAY: Well, we're going to have to look at the situation on a daily basis. Clearly, we are having a huge surge at this time. Whether or not it is a spike, something that is temporary that will drop off, or whether it is a wave that will be very consistent is yet to be determined. However, we are prepared to deal with whatever develops with regard to the refugee situation. And that is why we have not only the ships in place, but that is also why we have Guantanamo available to be utilized for a situation like this. And that is why we have already in place an agreement and we expect to open very shortly a land processing center in the Turks and Caicos Island. And that is why we are also in discussions with several other countries about land-based centers throughout the region.
And so this is not something that is surprising. We've been watching the deteriorating human rights situation and we are prepared to deal with it.
Q The second part, if I might -- the processing at sea was set up to deal with some of the human rights problems in Haiti, but now with this massive outflux of refugees being drawn out into the open sea, where they run risks, and the fact that you have to deal with them no in various locations, in much larger numbers than expected, haven't you just exchanged one problem for another?
MR. GRAY: No, that is not correct. Again, we don't use the word unexpected. We use the word expected. The President said in May we were changing our policy because of the human rights situation. We expected that if that human rights situation continued to decline that there would be an increase in refugees. Why? Because the fundamental cause of the refugee problem is in Port-auPrince. It is Cedras. It is the coup leaders. It is those who stole democracy. And as long as they're in place, and as long as they refuse to step down, as long as they seek to tighten their grip by the use of violence, then you can expect this to happen.
We have expected it. And that is why we have the ships in place. That is why we have Guantanamo as a backup. That is why, just a few weeks ago, I went to the Turks and Caicos Island and signed an agreement to build a processing center there. And that is why we're in the process of talking with several other nations to put together other land-processing centers.
So we have been prepared. We understand what is going on. But, again, I would draw you to the fundamental problem --the fundamental problem is a lack of democracy. And what we're seeing in terms of the refugees is effect not cause. And what we've got to do is keep our policy focused on dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is bringing democracy.
Q It seems apparent from news reports that those who do apply for land-based processing in Haiti are often persecuted by government forces. And U.S. policy, of course, is to say, do it there; don't risk your lives by fleeing in boats. Yet we've only made it easier for them to be processed if they do flee on boats. By some accounts, they're fleeing in even ricketier boats than before because they know that the chances are that they'll get picked up and processed. We seem to be saying one thing and doing another.
MR. GRAY: No, what we're saying is that, one, we think that it is safer to go to the in-country processing centers rather than take your chances in rickety boats that could be swamped, people drown, before our Coast Guard cutters get there. So we continue to say, go to the in-country processing centers. It is safer. And if you look at the rates that have going on there, you will find that a lot of people have been going there, and we have been providing refugee asylum status.
And so, again, we would simply say to you that we have been trying to take out as quickly as possible those who have been granted asylum through the in-country process. But it continues to be the safest possibility, rather than getting in a rickety boat, going out 10, 12, 15, 30 miles and hoping that some Coast Guard cutter will come. So our message remains the same. Our message is, go to the in-country processing center. But because we understand the deterioration of human rights that is going on in that country, we have been prepared to take those who have felt the need to run the risk of their lives through these rickety boats. So, thus, our policy is designed to deal with both. However, we continue to say, go to the in-country processing centers.
Q What about persecution for those who do go? By all accounts there has been some.
MR. GRAY: We have some evidence that people have been detained upon going back, but they have usually been released. We have some evidence, and we've seen some in the news media, of some people who have been subject to some persecution after going through the land processing system. And we've tried to make corrections in that system so that a person who is approved can be immediately removed. And we are working right now to remove all of those incountry who have been granted asylum.
We're also working as a part of this policy -- if you go back and look at the policy since May 8th, this policy has been one that has sought to do several things: One, to provide a fair processing operation for refugee and asylum seekers. But at the same time, it has been designed to be prepared for any contingency while also bringing to play a multilateral approach recognizing that the refugee problem is not simply a United States problem.
And that is why we've gotten the United Nations High Commission on Refugees involved. That is why we've got Turks and Caicos started to put in place a center. That is why we went to the Jamaica government, and they courageously have stepped forward and provided their harbor in order to begin the processing system there. And so there has been a consistent goal in this policy. And that policy has understood that as human rights deteriorate in the country, you may have a surge, and, yes, you may even have a wave if human rights continues to deteriorate. But we are prepared for it, and we're going to continue to be prepared for it.
Q How do you deal with the wave, though, when it gets up -- what if it gets up to 10,000, 11,000, 12,000 refugees back at Guantanamo Bay, like George Bush had? You don't want that on your hands, I take it.
MR. GRAY: Well, as I said before, Guantanamo is now open as a backup to the ships because of this surge. We don't know if it is a wave yet. We've only had three days. Secondly, we hope next week to open Turks and Caicos. And we're also in the process of negotiation and conversations with several other countries. So if you look at all of those steps that we're taking, I don't think we'll reach that kind of situation that you just described.
Q You have mentioned the human rights situation, but as the President himself yesterday said that the tougher sanctions probably explain in part this big increase in the refugees. Would you agree with that?
MR. GRAY: No, I would not necessarily agree with that. I do believe that sometimes sanctions do cause fear, anxiety in a population. But let's not get into the game of blaming sanctions for the cause of poverty in Haiti or the deterioration of conditions that are driving people out.
Haiti has a per capita income, as you know, of $350. These sanctions that have been in place less than five weeks didn't do that. Stories about children suffering an starving, that didn't occur because of five weeks of United Nations sanctions or the targeted sanctions that we imposed. There are no hungry children seeking to get on American Airlines or Air Canada to fly coach or first-class to go to New York or Miami. There are no starving peasants who are worried about their transfer of assets at Citibank or at Chase Manhattan. There are no people in -- who are worried about their estates in Florida or Texas or their penthouses in New York.
And so, therefore, to suggest that these sanctions are somehow creating the impoverishment of that country and driving people out avoids the historical reality and the fact that what is the cause of the refugee situation is primarily the lack of democracy, the coup leadership, its brutality, the declining human rights.
Yes -- do sanctions hurt? Yes, they do. They do have an effect -- a negative effect. But dictatorships kill. And those who say that we should not follow this policy are usually are those who say, let's walk away and leave the dictatorship in place. I think the community of nations, the United Nations, the Organization of American States in an unprecedented manner have said collectively that this is the correct policy to pursue. And that's why even on the targeted sanctions that we have put in place since May 21st, we've been joined by Canada. We've been joined by the Netherlands. We've been joined by Panamanian Airlines. And we're hoping that Air France and others will join in doing that.
So I think we've got to be very, very clear. And at the same time that we're putting these tough sanctions on that are targeted toward the wealthy, those who need visas, for instance, we are also offsetting the suffering of the poor by feeding nearly one out of every five Haitians today and providing $2.2 million of medical supplies and aid to those in need of healing.
So to suggest that somehow the prime result of these economic sanctions of five weeks is the impoverishment of Haiti, ignores the fact that it is the military dictatorship that continues to take away opportunity. We all know, as looking back to the 1970s and the 1980s and the Western Hemisphere, whenever we have restored democracy, whenever we've restored free marketplace, you have seen the end of refugees. And we have seen that movement in this hemisphere for the last two decades. And now, in one place, there remains in this island, Haiti, a lack of democracy, and that is why the nations of Latin America, Central America, our neighbor to the north Canada and the United Nations have joined overwhelmingly in supporting what we are doing and have implemented similar actions themselves.
Q Sir, I'm interested in the increase in repression and human rights abuses that you cite which seems conveniently to coincide with the President's decision on refugees and not necessarily to gibe with what we've been hearing for the past year and a half. I wonder if you have hard numbers to support this, and whether you have hard numbers to support the approval rate for refugees applying in-country being the same as those on shipboard?
MR. GRAY: First of all, the numbers speak for themselves if you talk to the human rights organizations. Many of you have covered them. Many of you have shown on television bodies lying out in the street on the way to the airport, where everyone had to go around them, and left there purposely to demonstrate the ability to inspire fear. I saw a series of reports this weekend on several major news outlets of women who are being raped sytematically in front of their children because they don't support the coup, or because they were believed to have supported President Aristide.
So we don't need to document that. It has been recorded by you in the media; it is being recorded by the human rights organizations, and including the international human rights representative there on the spot, whom I met with in Brazil, who clearly has put forth that there are increased human rights violations.
And so those are not numbers that interestingly coincide with the change of policy. We changed our policy because of those numbers and because of what was happening in-country. And that is why we changed the policy.
With regard to the acceptance rates, if you would like to contact we'll be glad to put you in touch with the appropriate member of our staff to discuss numbers. And what I said -- but I will say it again -- I said, during roughly the same period, since the boats have been in place, that in-country as well as the acceptance rates in terms of the shipboard processing have been roughly about the same, and has varied between 20 and 30 percent.
Q Do you have any indication at all that the military rulers in Haiti are any closer to stepping down now than they were before the new policy of sanctions and so forth had started?
MR. GRAY: Yes. I think we are seeing our policies taking hold and having effect. Some of you have already documented, but let me go through some of the things that we are seeing.
One, I'm told by our people that the price of gas that everyone saw was low several weeks ago is beginning to climb again. We are beginning to see greater efforts on the part of the Dominican Republic to seal its borders. And with the help of the U.N. technical team, we've also seen members of that society, some parliamentarians, as well as the brother of Michelle Francois, call for the coup leaders to step down. And we're also beginning to pick up signs of unrest within the military itself, and certainly among the business support groups of the coup leadership.
Those are things that have happened in the last few days, and we think that we're beginning to have a serious impact, and, hopefully, these policies will help the coup leadership and their supporters to come to their senses and make a choice. And the choice is very clear -- they can continue to pursue the policies that they are pursuing, holding on to power illegally, abusing human rights, and in so doing, run the risk of destroying their country, the institutions that they are sworn to protect; or, they can step down.
And I can assure you that the President is very strong in his resolve and so are the other nations of the Western Hemisphere, the OAS and the United Nations in pursuing these policies and making sure that they do step down.
Q But to follow up, sir, is there any direct evidence that these guys are closer to stepping down?
MR. GRAY: I think I've cited at least four or five things that show that there are breaks that are taking place. There are divisions that are taking place. And those things were not there a month ago. Other than that, I'm not prepared to comment on anything other than those things.
Q Are there any limits to your ability to process refugees? In other words, can you, in Guantanamo Bay and the all the other places you cited, handle as many as could come?
MR. GRAY: I believe that we're in a position and we are prepared to deal with the problems that we face at this time. I cannot conjecture on what will happen next week or next month if the situation in human rights declines further and large numbers come out, we will have to deal with that. But I will say that we have been prepared to deal with a surge or a spike or a wave, and that's why we've got the Turks and Caicos Island, that's why we've got Guantanamo, and we will be prepared to deal with any contingency.
But, again, I think our course has been to remain on the source of the problem. And the source of the problem is not the refugees. The source of the problem are the coup leaders who continue to oppress their people and continue to hold power against the will of the majority of their people who voted overwhelmingly in free and full election for leadership, and also against the rule of the entire international community. That is the fundamental cause.
Our policies will stay focused on changing that cause. And yes, we will be prepared to deal with the refugee situation in a multilateral way as we're doing with Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, and some other countries that will be joining us, and, above all, with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees which is helping in the processing and also helping in the resettlement.
Q these people that are fleeing their country like to come to the United States. Are you going to warehouse these people, then, at Guantanamo waiting for the change in leadership in Haiti? Or will they actually be allowed to come to the United States?
MR. GRAY: Well, first of all, let me just simply say that part of the process that we are working with the United Nations High Commission is proving resettlement opportunities for those who are screened in, not simply the United States, but in other countries as well. And therefore, it is our hope that this effort that we are working on in dealing with the refugee situation will become completely multilateral in the sense that it is not simply a United States issue, but it is really an issue of the Western hemisphere. And because the United Nations has gotten into it, it is clearly a condition that affects the entire world.
And so, therefore, we must address the refugee side, the effect side just as we're trying to address the core problem -- the lack of democracy -- with the same multilateral approach. And so, therefore, it is our expectation that as we go forward, we will be looking for other resettlement possibilities, and we will be prepared to deal with any contingency whether that involves a safe haven or not. And it will depend upon our day-to-day and week-toweek evaluation.
END4:48 P.M. EDT