THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY WILLIAM GRAY, SPECIAL ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT ON HAITI The Briefing Room
12:04 P.M. EDT
MR. GRAY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The flow of boat migrants from Haiti highlights the continued political repression in that country. The United States, along with several other regional nations and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, are determined to provide protection to those Haitians who are at risk of persecution.
Toward that end, the United States has established an in-country refugee processing system in Haiti. It is one of only four such programs that we operate worldwide. Three thousand Haitians have entered the United States through this program since February of 1993. Those Haitians who apply in Haiti and are given refugee status will continue to be admitted to the United States.
The United States remains concerned that migration by boat places Haitians at risk of loss of life. The boats are often unseaworthy and are usually overcrowded. This morning's report of a loss of over 100 boat people at sea confirms the risk of boat departures. There are large numbers of Haitian asylum seekers who may be in need of protection. To provide for those large numbers, the United States, acting with other regional nations and the UNHCR will establish safe havens in several Caribbean area states.
The first of these safe havens will be established in Panama, initially at U.S. Defense Department facilities and later at a new camp run by UNHCR and the government of Panama. Those Haitian asylum seekers in need of protection will be allowed to stay. We pledge our continued vigorous efforts to ensure that those political conditions improve in the near future.
Thus, Haitians who are determined to be refugees at our three in-country refugees processing sites in Haiti will continue to be brought to the United States. Boat people will continue to be rescued at sea by the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy. Those boat people who are in need of protection will be given the opportunity to obtain it in safe haven camps, initially in Panama later in other Caribbean nations.
We remain committed to the early end of the source of the persecution in Haiti and the return of democracy there and the restoration of President Aristide. I will take questions.
Q Mr. Gray, you're saying, in effect, that people who go to the boats will not be able to enter the United States, even if they deserve asylum, that they will go to these safe haven countries and remain there.
MR. GRAY: Yes.
Q That only those who go in-country to processing centers and deserve refugee status will have the option of getting to the United States.
MR. GRAY: That is correct. What we are providing is a safe haven, safety from persecution and from the fear of persecution to all. Those who take to the boats will be offered safe haven in camps in Panama. Those who go to in-country processing sites will be offered the potential for resettlement after the processing in the United States.
We believe that this is a system that is a continuation of what the President announced May 8th of a fair procedure, a procedure that was responding to the continuing deterioration of human rights. And we believe that the overwhelming flow that we are seeing in the last week is created by the continued repression that is occurring in Haiti. And therefore we are prepared to respond to that by offering safety and safe haven for all.
And thus what you see is again an evolution to meet the crisis. It is multilateral. We are joined in it with Panama. And we also have agreement in principle with two other Caribbean nations -- Dominica and Antigua.
Q Why the distinction in the way they're treated?
Q For those who have a well-founded fear of persecution, has Panama agreed to in effect an open-ended commitment to allow these people to stay on its territory indefinitely until the situation in Haiti is resolved?
MR. GRAY: The agreement that we have with Panama is for them to provide safe haven for those who have a well-founded fear of persecution, political refugees, asylum seekers. And that commitment is for a six-month period as we continue our policy of applying economic and diplomatic pressure.
Q What happens to the refugee processing centers on the Comfort and the Turks and Caicos? And are the standards different for measuring those who have a fear of persecution as opposed to those who you would let into the United States? Is it going to be easier for them to get this safe haven status?
MR. GRAY: As you know, the Turks and Caicos processing center is expected to be open next week and functioning. We have the shipboard processing in place, and that will continue. We are in the process of negotiations with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to determine just that issue, which is the process and criteria as we move forward into this new phase of providing safety and protection for people who are fleeing from persecution.
Q So those ships would be processing people, but not into the United States anymore.
MR. GRAY: Well, the ships -- those who are picked up by ship will be given safe haven in Panama. So therefore, those who would go to the processing centers at TCI or at Jamaica on shipboard will be being processed for safe haven in Panama. The fundamental point here that we want to make is, one, that we urge people as a result of seeing what happened yesterday with the loss of life, that leaving by ship is not safe. However, we're prepared to respond. Clearly, the shipboard processing with these kinds of flows requires that we will also use TCI, because if this continues, and it appears that this may be a wave rather than a surge. But I think the fundamental issue here is that the United States government, working with its allies in the region -- Panama, with agreements in principles, with two other nations, and already the TCI facility -- we are prepared to deal with the continuing deterioration that is driving people out of Haiti.
Q What happens to the people that go to Panama? Some are probably applying for political asylum; the others may be economic refugees. Will you make a difference who will stay in Panama? And is there a number, because as the numbers keep growing of refugees at high seas, how many people will Panama take in?
MR. GRAY: Our understanding with regard to the safe haven is that we will have a processing that will continue, that will determine those who are in need of political asylum. And they are the ones that will go to Panama. All of those who come from boats, they will go to Panama, and we will have a processing system that will provide for the selection and the identification of those who are at political risk and will find that safe haven in Panama.
Q Mr. Gray, the Pentagon has announced that it is sending four ships into -- four amphibious ships into the area off of Haiti. Has this sudden influx of refugees pushed the U.S. to the point that it is sending a message, that it will attack or put troops ashore in Haiti to deal with the situation? Why are these moving in there? Can you give us some --
MR. GRAY: That development has nothing to do with the refugees at all -- it has to do with the obligation of the President of the United States to protect American lives. As you know, there are thousands of Americans that are still in Haiti. As we see the continuing deterioration and the repression that is going on, the President has a responsibility to be prepared for any contingency and for the protection of American lives.
Q more troops in there than are needed just to extricate Americans there. Is there a message, veiled or otherwise, to the Haitians to move forward on the refugee question, to get the military leaders out, or else --
MR. GRAY: There's only one message that we are sending. That message, through diplomatic channels, as well as our sanctions, is that the coup leaders must step down. With regard to the issue that you raise, the message that we are sending there is that America is prepared to protect American lives, as the American President must be prepared to do so. Secondly, the message that we're sending with regard to these new agreements, this multilateral approach to solving the refugee crisis, is that we are prepared to provide safe haven, safety. The United States will act with compassion. We will pick up those at sea. However, they will be taken to Panama. And we are urging them to stay at home and use the in-country processing, which is the only place that will have the resettlement possibility of the United States.
We do not want to see people drowned at sea, as has been reported already. And thus, we believe that we have an evolution of our policy that meets the wave that is coming out, works multilaterally with our neighbors in the region, who are stepping up to assist in this policy and yet, at the same time, offer fairness and sanctuary.
Q Mr. Gray, back to the Panama situation, is there a limit of 10,000 there, as the Panamanians are saying?
MR. GRAY: Yes, there is a limit in the agreement that we worked out of 10,000.
Q Can you tell me if the other two countries involved also have limits, so we get an idea of how much safe haven capability the United States --
MR. GRAY: We have not worked out in detail those agreements in principle, which were achieved yesterday. The details are currently being worked out and I'm not at liberty to say exactly what size each of those will be.
Q Can you cite precedents for the time schedule for the return of people who are granted asylum and then placed under guard? As I understand the United Nations HCR is going to provide guards for these camps, and then a time schedule return for them. That doesn't sound like our usual asylum program. Are there precedents for that kind of thing? And what are you going to do if they're not ready in six months?
MR. GRAY: Well, first of all, the safe haven program that we're establishing with Panama and other countries in the region do meet international standards. Otherwise, you would not have had the partnership formed with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees several weeks ago. They are involved right now in the processing and looking at the standards on shipboard, as well as what we're doing everywhere.
So number one, those who are concerned about standards, we have the highest standards, working with the United Nations Commission on Refugees. These standards are international and they will be an advocation, both in Panama, as well as in TCI and other countries, where we will establish safe havens.
Q I didn't ask about standards, sir, I asked about the precedent for granting asylum based on a time certain return to the country from which they had a well founded fear of --
MR. GRAY: We are providing safe havens. These are safe havens that are being provided. That is done in international circumstances and it has been done by the United Nations High Commissioner. Safe havens are temporary until a crisis is ended, and then people can be repatriated to their home country. And so that is exactly why, in my statement, these are safe havens.
Q I'm still confused as to who is going to be processed then. I mean, you say that the processing facilities in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos will go on line. Who is going to be processed -- the people who are already in the system, because it sounds to me like what you're saying is the people who go to Panama will remain there, have their needs taken care of, but will not be processed for U.S. asylum? Is that correct?
MR. GRAY: Those who are picked up on the sea -- and we urge people not to take to the sea because of the potential loss of life, as we have seen graphically demonstrated. However, because of our concern, we are prepared to pick those up who are at sea. They will be processed to seek, to learn, whether or not, just as we have been doing over the last few weeks, there is a real and credible fear with regard to political persecution. Those who are found to have such a fear, those who are granted asylum, that asylum will be granted at the refugee camp in Panama; and later as we bring on board other safe havens, they will be granted status there.
Q So the people who will be remaining in the safe haven will be people -- rather than repatriate people, they will remain in the safe haven --
MR. GRAY: What we have said is those who have been defined as political refugees will be put in a safe haven until the crisis has ended.
Q will be repatriated from now on until the crisis is settled?
MR. GRAY: I'm saying to you that through the processing, which we have in place of those who are not political refugees, will be returned. Those who are refugees will be given safe haven that are picked up on the sea in Panama.
Q Does that mean that no one will go from Panama to the United States for --
MR. GRAY: That is exactly right. That is exactly right. Safe haven means a safe place to stay throughout the crisis. So those who take to the boats will be picked up, processed. Political refugees will be taken to Panama for safe haven. They will not have resettlement possibilities in the United States. Those who take to the boats will not have resettlement possibilities in the United States. What will be offered is safe haven.
Q As a further disincentive for people to take to the boats, would it be any harder to obtain refugee status if you take to the boats? And second of all, what happens after six months to the people who are in these safe havens if this crisis that has taken months and months to resolve is not resolved in six months, are they going to forced to be --
MR. GRAY: Well, we are, first of all, hoping that our efforts in terms of sanctions and diplomatically will find a resolution and the coup leadership will come to its senses and step down. If not, we will be prepared to work with countries to seek further safe havens for those who may need them.
Q is there a difference between political asylum and safe haven?
MR. GRAY: Yes. If you include by that definition, political asylum means permanent resettlement. That is that someone would be taken someplace and permanently resettled. What we are offering for asylum seekers who take to the boats, which we urge that they not do because of the threat to the loss of life, is that we will provide for them a safe haven for those asylum seekers as opposed to permanent resettlement.
Q But not political asylum.
MR. GRAY: No, it will be a safe haven in terms of it will not be resettlement. It will be political asylum in the sense that they will be safe from the continuing repression and the escalating violation of human rights. So in terms of a definition of political asylum means, I can get away from the fiery furnace of repression, yes, you will get that in Panama. Will it be a permanent resettlement? No. At the end of the crisis when democracy is returned, you will be returned.
Q How much will this cost? Who's paying it? And does this come out of a compassion on the part of Panama and the other nations, or are we footing the bills?
MR. GRAY: Well, those details have not been finalized, but we are getting support, which also includes some financial support, from those who are cooperating. A large portion of this will be borne by the United States government, because it is our Coast Guard cutters, our Navy ships that are doing the picking up. Of course, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees is contributing their personnel and people, as well as nongovernmental organizations, who are sending people to be a part of a processing. So it is a shared responsibility. We are very confident that as this process continues, you will see the same increase in terms of international support that you have seen since May 8th. And we expect other nations to join us in dealing with this hemispheric problem. It is not a problem of the United States alone. It is not a problem of one state in the United States, but it is a hemispheric problem, which has implications for the entire region. And that is why we are successful in getting other nations to join us in solving this refugee crisis.
Q Mr. Gray, you link the sending of four more ships to waters off Haiti to an obligation of the President to protect America lives. Is there an increased threat to Americans or to other foreigners in Haiti?
MR. GRAY: Well, obviously when you see the deterioration that is taking place inside of Haiti, the kinds of examples that many of you in the media have covered, we believe that there is an increasing deterioration, and that potentially poses a threat to the safety of Americans. On June 15th in Port-au-Prince a labor activist was beaten and fatally shot in front of her three young children. On June 21st one employee of the government was severely beaten, another imprisoned for unwittingly violating a new decree of the de facto government that the Haitian flag not be lowered until so-called international oppression of Haiti ends. On June 25th, or 24th, an explosion in the front of the house of a local representative of a labor organization killed two young girls. On June 30th last week, the bodies of five men appeared on the streets of Port-au-Prince, all shot with their hands tied behind their backs.
The President has a responsibility to be prepared to protect American lives. And clearly, when you look at this kind of deteriorating situation, we must be prepared to do that.
Q Mr. Gray, is this a pretext, though, for an invasion? I mean, why do you need 2,000 men off the coast, four ships? Is this part of the contingency plan for an invasion to get --
MR. GRAY: There is no pretext other than the responsibility of an American President to protect American lives and have sufficient available resources to do that adequately.
Q congressional testimony, you were specifically asked, is a military invasion imminent, and at that time you said no. What is your response to the question now? Is a military invasion imminent, given what you said, that the U.S. is prepared to deal with the continuing crisis that is driving the Haitians out?
Q And how do you define imminent?
MR. GRAY: My response is that there is no military invasion imminent. However, the military option is on the table. Imminent is defined as something that is going to happen in a few days. That is not the case.
However, we are looking at that situation as it deteriorates. The President has made it very clear and I have made it very clear, as his spokesperson, that the military option is on the table.
Q Do you have support from the UNHCR and from President Aristide for the new policy of setting up these safe haven holding areas?
MR. GRAY: We do have the support of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. President Aristide has not been available for me to have a conversation with him. I expect to have it with him this afternoon. I would be very surprised if he was not supportive of this, since he has been calling, for some time, for safe havens; and he has told people not to flee, as he calls it, the house on fire.
What we are doing here is we are doing two things. One, through our policies, sanctions, diplomacy, working with other nations, we're trying to put out the fire, but at the same time, we are trying with compassion to handle those who are fleeing the house.
So I would be very surprised if President Aristide had any such criticism.
Q When you were last here, you gave some signs -- you mentioned some signs of dissension within the Haitian military and also suggestions that the coup leaders were succumbing to the sanctions pressure. Have you seen more evidence of dissension? Have you seen things -- more pressure on the coup leaders to step down?
MR. GRAY: Well, I think that besides those signs that I mentioned to you, I think it was last week, there is additional information that people are dissatisfied with the way things are going as a result of the coup leaders' intransigence and refusal to step down.
Let me just expand on that by simply saying when one looks at what is happening, one has to understand that the address of problem is in Port-au-Prince and lies with the coup leadership, where the entire international community has condemned them for refusal to living up to their agreements to step down; after years of negotiation, and now, with the escalating human rights violations, that international community, of which we are a part and which we are working together with, has said very clearly that that is the center of the problem. And our policies are working with those nations, designed to try to bring about a result, where they step down and democracy is returned.
Yesterday I spent time in Barbados with the CARICOM leadership and to listen to the prime ministers of the CARICOM nations and to brief them on where we were. And I can say very confidently that those leaders of CARICOM feel very, very strongly that we must stay the course, that we must have resolve, and that we must be determined to make sure that the coup leadership steps down and democracy will prevail. And that is ultimately our message.
And I think what we have done to meet this wave of refugees that are coming out is we have said, as the American government, that we're going to act with compassion; we're going to act with fairness; we're going to act with our neighbors in the region to provide safety for those who are fleeing; and at the same time, we are going to continue with our efforts.
Q What evidence do you have that the lives of U.S. citizens are in danger --
MR. GRAY: In any situation where there is a deterioration of human rights and where there is the kind of diplomatic struggle that is going on over whether democracy will be the order of the day or whether tyranny and murder will be the order of the day, at any time there could be a threat to the thousands of Americans who are there, including our embassy employees.
For a government and an administration not to be prepared for that contingency would really be the height of irresponsibility. We are going to be prepared for any contingency, whether it is the refugees or whether it is working with our neighbors in the region, the evolution of this diplomatic and sanctions policy.
And so thus, as we look at the deterioration, which is the fundamental driving force of these refugees coming out, we believe that we have to be ready to protect those citizens. That is not a pretext. That is just a statement of responsibility that a government has to its people around the world. And this administration and President Clinton is determined to provide that kind of protection to all American citizens.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END12:30 P.M. EDT