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When Unaccompanied Children Were Held at Guantanamo
In the 1990s, tens of thousands of Haitians poured into refugee camps. Most adults repatriated; scores of children were stranded.
Through the 1990s, brutal political turmoil tore through Haiti, driving tens of thousands of people out of the country to seek asylum on the shores of the U.S. Most of them never made it. Instead, they were diverted to refugee camps at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Among these refugees were scores of children, some of them forcibly separated from their families; others had no families traveling with them. These minors were kept on the base in children’s camps, sometimes for as long as a year.
How did this happen?
The refugee crisis of 1991
After the first democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertand Aristide, was overthrown in a coup, his supporters – and those suspected of supporting him – suffered beatings, torture, even death. Thousands of people fled the nation by boat. They were then collected by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to refugee camps at Guantanamo Bay.
In July 1992, Philip Bennett of the Boston Globe1 reported about one of these camps, “ringed by razor wire,” which held several hundred children – many of them separated from their families by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), despite a policy meant to keep families together.
“They would change their rules daily as to what a family was, because more people were getting into the United States as a family,” Ellen Powers, formerly of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, told Bennett. Some government employees were pressured by INS to keep down the number of Haitians they were letting into the U.S. Keeping families separated was one way to do that.
Another former Justice Department worker, Amy Shorey reported that due to chaotic record-keeping, INS also had trouble keeping track of people, their families, and where they should go. “Often INS didn’t even know that families were on the base,” she said. “I think the problem was that they looked at them as numbers and not as people.”
Due to a strict U.S. policy of repatriation initiated by George H. W. Bush and continued by Bill Clinton, refugees were returned to Haiti without inquiry about why they’d fled. In the confusion, adults were sent back despite credible fears of persecution, often forced to leave behind children, though how many were unknown.
“Sometimes I would find children crying and would ask them what happened,” reported a Haitian-American priest who worked at the camp. “They said their parents were sent back to Haiti and the children remained on the base.” Some of the children went on to live with relatives or in foster care in the U.S. It wasn’t clear to those working in the camp if or how other children were reunited with their families.
Several of those interviewed by the Globe said they’d witnessed cases of physical abuse of these young people as punishment for breaking camp rules. Some minors who broke rules were placed in a camp for adults charged with serious crimes like rape, where they slept on the bare ground and were given smaller rations. One teenager was sent to this camp, the priest said, after being caught with a milk carton in the sleeping quarters, which was forbidden.
The refugee crisis of 1994
The camps at Guantanamo Bay were cleared out and closed briefly in 1993. But less than a year later, another wave of refugees from Haiti and Cuba were fleeing brutal dictatorships. Guantanamo opened camps for the masses from both countries. Then people started noticing discrepancies in how the Haitians and Cubans were treated.
A 1995 story on NPR’s Morning Edition2 featured an interview with a lawyer who was suing the U.S. government on behalf of Haitian refugee children. According to the report, in 1994 321 unaccompanied minors from Cuba were let into the U.S. by Attorney General Janet Reno, citing the deplorable living conditions at the camp.
“They didn’t say, ‘OK, bring all the children in. They said, ‘We will only bring Cuban children in,’” Ira Kurzaban, lawyer from the Haitian Refugee Center, told NPR. “The issue for the attorney general when she paroled the Cuban children was solely the conditions in the camp. Well, Haitian children still face those conditions.”
That same year, New York Times3 reporter Mireya Navarro visited the Haitian children’s refugee camps. By this time, of the 21,000 Haitians settled at Guantanamo in 1994, 480 remained in the camps; 249 of them were unaccompanied minors, mostly teenagers aged 14-17, though some were as young as a few months old.
Navarro observed, “The base provides the children clothing, food and schooling. But the tent city where they live is dusty, the supplies of donated items like shoes are haphazard, medical care is limited, and spirits are low.”
She spoke with a 13-year-old boy who had seen his father shot to death in Haiti because of his suspected political alliances. The boy stopped attending the camp school after he’d outgrown his shoes and was embarrassed to show up barefoot. “I’m alone here,” he told the reporter. “I don’t feel good here. It’s been nine months.”
The fates of the minors left at the camp were being determined on a case by case basis. It was a lengthy process as government and aid workers attempted to track down family members in Haiti for the children before sending them back. A small number of Haitian children were let into the U.S. because they had parents there or they needed life-saving medical care.
Navarro wrote, “Mental health workers here say that most of the children are handling their stay well but that many suffer from adjustment disorders like depression.”
The barefoot 13-year-old said he hoped to contact his uncle in Florida, but the phone number had been disconnected. In the meantime, he bided his time sleeping, attending classes and thinking about his dad.
Divisive responses to children’s crisis
Following publication of Navarro’s frontpage article, “Many Haitian Children View Camps as Permanent,” a letter to the editor4 argued that all the detained Haitian children should be allowed into the U.S. noting how “several children have been ruthlessly repatriated to Haiti, effectively orphaning them in a country where their parents have been killed or have fled from the terror created by the still armed thugs of the coup.”
The letter was signed by Jonathan Demme, Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.
Another point of view appeared in a letter printed in the Christian Science Monitor,5 penned by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Phyllis Oakley. She shared her “deep disappointment” in reports about the government’s prioritization of the Haitian children, noting the “the care and commitment” of many agencies that were “trying to deal compassionately with a complicated issue” had been ignored.
She also noted that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other social service groups were working to ensure that all the children would be able to leave Guantanamo Bay by July 1. She was right – the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel6 soon reported that the camps were closing. While those refugees already processed for repatriation were being sent back to Haiti, the majority of the remaining 150 Haitian refugees would be placed on planes headed to the U.S. This number included most of the 123 unaccompanied minors still at the camps.
Their next destination for them was the Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Florida, where some of the Haitians would permanently settle, and most of the children would be placed in out-of-state foster homes.
For more information about the Haitian refugee crisis:
From Ebook Central:
Pezzullo, R. (2006). Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy.
Quinn, K., & Sutton, P. (2013). Politics and Power in Haiti.
Shamsie, Y., & Thompson, A. S. (Eds.). (2006). Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State.
From Alexander Street:
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- Bennett, P. (1992, Oct 02). INS Accused of Parting Haitian Families. Boston Globe. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.
- Lawyers Sue On Behalf Of Haitian Refugee Children (1995, April 24). Washington, D.C.: NPR. Available from ProQuest Central.
- By, M. N. (1995, May 01). Many Haitian Children View Camps' Limbo as Permanent. New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- JONATHAN, D. S. (1995, May 10). Now Also Let in the Detained Haitian Children. New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Oakley, P. (1995, Jun 08). All the Haitian Children to Leave Guantanamo Bay Camp by July 1. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- DAVID BEARD, S. W. (1995, Jun 26). HAITIAN CHILDREN HEADED OUT OF GUANTANAMO. Sun Sentinel. Available from ProQuest Central and Global Newsstream.