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Haiti's most desperate reach for temporary U.S. lifeline

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 26 Mar 2010 11:10 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) - Fifty of Haiti's most desperate earthquake survivors, including the sick, the elderly and rape victims, may get temporary reprieve to live in the United States as part of a relief effort being driven by an American human rights lawyer.

The 50 people are applying for humanitarian parole Â? an immigration policy that allows individuals to enter the United States for a year for urgent humanitarian reasons.

"These are people who are more vulnerable and at more extreme risk than every other person in Haiti," said Jayne Fleming, the lawyer who is helping to put together the HaitiansÂ? applications.

"Everyone is at risk and everyone is suffering but these groups are at heightened states of risk," she told AlertNet by telephone.

Humanitarian parole was granted in the weeks immediately after the Jan. 12 earthquake to Haitian orphans who had already been identified for adoption by American parents.

Fleming visited Haiti earlier this month with a nine-strong team of lawyers and doctors, including child psychologists and psychiatrists experienced in the field of trauma.

Her teamÂ?s mission was to identify Haitians living in extreme poverty Â? on less than $3 a day Â? who had compelling reasons to leave.

Â?We interviewed 150 families and identified 50 applicants,Â? she said. Â?It was very much a triage approach, prioritised towards those who really wonÂ?t be able to survive in Haiti.Â?

Identified as candidates for parole were people with extreme medical needs, such as stroke victims, who could not get the treatment they required, elderly or disabled people who were extremely vulnerable, widows or siblings caring for large numbers of children and rape victims.

Â?Rape victims was our biggest group Â? there are so many of them who are extremely vulnerable to re-victimisation in the current conditions,Â? added Fleming, who works as pro bono counsel to commercial law firm Reed Smith and leads its human rights team.

About one third of the group of applicants are rape survivors, many of them survivors of multiple rapes.

They are at high risk of being attacked again since they are already targets, their defences are low and there is a lack of security and male protection, said Fleming, who has worked with rape and torture survivors in Central America.

Fleming hopes to identify more candidates for parole and make more applications in the future.

AVOIDING MORE TRAUMA

FlemingÂ?s team worked with local grassroots organisations to identify prospective parolees, including the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and its partner organisation, the Bureau of Advocates International.

Candidates had to fit certain criteria to ensure a move to the United States would not expose them to re-traumatisation.

Many humanitarian experts argue against removing people from their environment. Others say it is unfair to remove some, given the extent of need in Haiti and people in other countries waiting to be reunited with family in the United States.

Fleming said her team is sensitive to the arguments against humanitarian parole but that in many cases it was clear that leaving Haiti was a better, safer option. "But it is a balance,Â? she said.

Â?The last thing we want to do is re-traumatise a person, especially children, by disconnecting them and dislocating them from things that are culturally familiar, from their family and community,Â? Fleming said.

Â?But what we also noticed when we were there is that the community structures and traditional forms of support that had existed in Haiti had been wiped out by the earthquake, particularly for children,Â? she added.

Fleming said she came into contact with 25 orphans wandering the streets of Haiti with no carers and no support.

FAMILY TIES

However, a Haitian orphan with no family ties in the United States would not be considered for parole, Fleming said, while an orphan who was alone and living on the streets but who had family in the United States could be a candidate.

Those admitted under humanitarian parole are eligible for certain services such as healthcare in the United States but they must have a sponsor who will support them financially and provide a place to live in order to be granted access.

Within the 50 applicants, Fleming said about a third have family in the United States who have agreed to take care of them but sponsors are needed for the other two thirds.

Â?We think through relief organisations, churches and the Haitian community weÂ?ll be able to find groups to sponsor people,Â? said Fleming, recalling how Americans sponsored Vietnamese immigrants after the Vietnam war.

After one year in the States, parolees will either have to return home or apply to stay longer under different criteria.

Among the chosen applicants is a young mother with two babies who lost her husband, parents and the rest of her family in the quake and who has a relative in the United States who is willing to take them in, Fleming said.

There is also a 23-year-old woman who is caring for five siblings all under 18 who have relatives in the United States but no longer any living family in Haiti.

Â?WeÂ?re looking at unification (with relatives) and weÂ?re looking at stability for those small children,Â? said Fleming.

Â?Temporary parole to protect these children is something weÂ?d consider a better option, rather than leaving them in the streets of Haiti where thereÂ?s no functional system to protect them.Â?

Fleming funded the trip to Haiti partly through private donations and her own funds. She is hoping the U.S. government will waive the visa fees of approximately $340 per applicant.

It will take her team about a month to put together the applications and find sponsors while visa processing will take another 4-6 weeks.

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