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PROCESSING OF HAITIANS BEGINS ON SHIP OFF JAMAICA

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The first shipboard processing of Haitians' applications for asylum under the administration's new policy began on Thursday aboard a Navy hospital ship moored here.

At 9 a.m. on Thursday, 35 Haitians picked up from leaky wooden sailboats were put on board the white-painted Comfort, the red crosses on its hull gleaming in the tropical sun.In keeping with the new policy for handling the requests for asylum on ships or on land outside the United States, the 1,000-bed ship was filled with an array of interpreters and hastily trained immigration officials ready to weigh the stories of the Haitians and decide whether they would be sent back, granted refugee status and allowed to come to the United States or other countries.

The United States had been sending back Haitians intercepted at sea without hearings.

Human rights advocates, who had fought the policy of returning the Haitians picked up at sea, were watching the new procedures with grave concern, waiting to see if they would simply prove to be a more elaborate mechanism for sending the Haitians back.

Issues of particular concern were how much time the sun-parched refugees would have to recuperate, rest and rehydrate after being picked up from the tossing seas, and how much access they would have to interpreters and counselors.

By keeping the interviewing away from American soil, the Clinton administration is in effect denying the Haitians access to a number of legal options they would be guaranteed as soon as they set foot in the United States.

"Only time will tell whether this is a sincere effort by the administration," said Arthur Helton, director of migration programs for the Open Society Institute in New York. "The Haitian boat people are in a virtual legal netherworld and one in which lawlessness can go unchecked. They are at the mercy of the sensitivity and beneficence of those who staff this operation. The procedural safeguards are meager."

In addition, the new procedures call for refugees to meet a standard, in the eyes of immigration officials, of a "well-founded fear" of persecution should they be sent home. This is a tougher standard than the "credible fear" that had been used when refugees were being interned at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.