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NEW POLICY OF RETURNING REFUGEES MAY BE KEEPING HAITIANS HOME

SHARE NEW POLICY OF RETURNING REFUGEES MAY BE KEEPING HAITIANS HOME

The new U.S. policy of directly returning Haitian refugees is keeping people home, at least for now, say residents on the island of La Gonave, the point of departure for many boat people.

U.S. Coast Guard figures bear that out, with no refugees reported intercepted over a 48-hour period ending early Friday.Under an executive order signed by President Bush two weeks ago, boat people intercepted by the Coast Guard are now shipped immediately back home and must make any asylum request through the American consulate in Port-au-Prince.

On Friday in New York, U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. upheld the policy but sharply criticized it. "This court is astonished that the United States would return Haitian refugees to the jaws of political persecution, terror, death and uncertainly when it has contracted not to do so," he wrote.

Previously, refugees picked up at sea were taken to a camp at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about one in three was found to have grounds for requesting political asylum.

A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Joe Dye, said Friday he could not speculate on whether the "significant decrease" in recent days was directly related to the new repatriation policy.

But he noted that only 248 people had been intercepted the first four full days of June - an average of 62 people per day. That compares with 13,053 people in May, or an average of 421 daily, Dye said from Miami.

State Department officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only four or five boats have been spotted in the past week.

The U.S. Coast Guard in Miami meanwhile announced that its cutters repatriated 504 Haitians on Friday, returning them to Port-au-Prince from Guantanamo.

On La Gonave, many Haitians were said to be awaiting Friday's court ruling on the new policy. "This week they've stopped making the trip," said islander Sauveur Laventure.