CAMEROON – Amid an outcry over the U.S. treatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, the beleaguered island country's embattled prime minister pointedly said Saturday that inequalities and conflict drive migration. But he stopped short of directly criticizing Washington over the issue.
“We do not wish to challenge the right of a sovereign state to control the entry borders into its territory, or to send back to the country of origin those who enter a country illegally,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry said in a video speech to the U.N. General Assembly's annual meeting of world leaders.
But “human beings, fathers and mothers who have children, are always going to flee poverty and conflict,” he added, urging the international community to move fast to improve living conditions in the countries that refugees are leaving for political or economic reasons.
“Migration will continue as long as the planet has both wealthy areas, whilst most of the world’s population lives in poverty, even extreme poverty, without any prospects of a better life,” he said.
Henry spoke as his country reels from its president's assassination, an earthquake and the migration crisis — all in the last three months. His government is facing increasing turmoil with presidential and legislative elections set for Nov. 7.
Confusion about U.S. immigration policies and misinformation on social media propelled thousands of Haitians to the U.S. southern border in recent months. A massive migrant camp — largely made up of Haitians, many of whom had been in Mexico or other Latin American countries for years — sprouted in the town of Del Rio, Texas, peaking last week at over 14,000 people hoping to gain entry to the U.S.
Images of U.S. border patrol agents using horses to block and move migrants sparked outrage, the resignation of the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, and an ongoing investigation. President Joe Biden called the agents' tactics “horrible,” “dangerous” and “wrong.”
The camp has now been cleared. Some people have been deported; about 12,400 migrants have been allowed into the U.S., at least temporarily, to pursue their claims to stay, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
Henry noted that the images “shocked many people,” but he didn't specifically say more about how the United States handled the situation. He noted, however, that "many countries which are prosperous today have been built through successive waves of migrants and refugees.”
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, has long struggled with political instability, violence, natural disasters and environmental crisis.
But this summer's series of blows has been especially difficult for the Caribbean island nation as it also contends with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer than 1 in 100 of its people have had at least one dose of a vaccine.
President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated July 7. Little over a month later, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed over 2,200 people, injured more than 12,000 and destroyed nearly 53,000 homes, according to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency. Nearly 350 people are still missing, Henry said.
This month, Haiti’s now-former chief prosecutor asked a judge to charge Henry in Moïse’s assassination. The prosecutor said the prime minister spoke to a key suspect twice in the hours after the killing; Henry's office says he got lots of calls and didn't take them all.
Henry fired the prosecutor and the justice minister last week. Another top official resigned, accusing the prime minister of trying to obstruct justice. Henry told the General Assembly he is striving to bring the culprits to justice, and he asked for “mutual legal assistance” to do so.
More than 40 suspects have been arrested, including 18 Colombian ex-soldiers. Bogotá has said most of them were duped, unaware of the actual nature of an operation devised in Florida and Haiti.
Moïse had faced protests over his leadership and tenure. He and opposition leaders disputed whether his term had legally ended this past February. He tapped Henry to become prime minister, but Henry didn't assume the office until shortly after the president's killing.
Henry said Saturday that he had set out to return the country “to normal functioning of democratic institutions” and hold “credible, transparent and inclusive general elections” as soon as possible.
Ahead of the vote, some politicians are aligning themselves with Henry, while others are breaking away.