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Uncertain fate awaits refugees

On side-by-side piers at the U.S. naval station here, some 500 Haitian boat people are put aboard two Coast Guard cutters several times weekly for the trip home.

While they board the boats, Haitians just rescued from the sea often are preparing to come ashore to the Guantanamo refugee camp.

The Haitians arrive poor, frightened and confused, and they leave resigned, anxious and still poor, clutching small parcels of new clothes and saying they have no idea what the future holds.

Here is what happened at the camps one day last week:

There were 11,570 Haitians. About 200 were preparing to set sail for Haiti on the cutter Seneca; 50 were boarding a flight to Miami, having qualified for consideration as political refugees who need not return home; 188 were disembarking from the cutter Dauntless, which pulled into port the day before; and 156 new arrivals were waiting on board the St. Petersburg-based cutter Steadfast, which arrived from its patrol near Haiti on Friday.

The camp was meant to be temporary, and the United States is trying to ship home 500 Haitians several days a week. But nobody can predict how many more Haitians might set sail for the United States and be intercepted by the Coast Guard.

Since Jan. 31, when U.S. courts allowed the government to resume repatriation of refugees who do not qualify for asylum in the United States, 2,137 refugees have been sent back to Haiti and close to 1,000 others have arrived.

Two of the most recent arrivals, interviewed on board the Steadfast shortly after it docked, said they were not aware when they left Haiti last week that they were likely to be intercepted and sent back.

Both men said they would face arrest or worse by the army if they returned to Haiti.

Carlos Joseph, 33, said he had left his 3-year-old son behind with relatives and fled after the army shot and killed his wife. In October, he said, he was arrested and beaten for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on it.

If nothing else, the refugees can count on getting food and medical attention at the camp.

Its makeshift hospital treats 500 to 1,000 patients a day for malaria, tuberculosis, skin and respiratory infections; even surgery is performed. The camp's 300 pregnant women get prenatal care, and their newborns are kept in a ward for two weeks after birth.

About one in every 10 Haitians tested for the HIV infection that causes AIDS is found to carry the virus, doctors at the camp said. So far, none of the newborns has tested positive.

The Haitians who are leaving the camp to go home are those the Immigration and Naturalization Service found have no claim to asylum because they do not face political persecution.

As they lined up to depart, many of them said they did not fear Haiti's military government but left because life there is so hard.

"I'll go fishing," one refugee said when asked how he would support himself at home. He said he would not try to flee again: "If I leave again, it will be the same. The Americans will pick me up and send me back again."

But Frangeles Alcine, a refugee whose status has not been determined yet, said he was afraid to go back because he was "in a group" watched by the police.

"They probably won't kill me right away," he said, "but they will put me in jail for a long time. They have been looking for me."

So far, more than 3,000 Haitians have been told that they have plausible claims for asylum and can go to the United States to argue their cases. Most of them are being held at a separate camp here while details of their flights to the United States for further interviews are worked out.

For the thousands who wait in uncertainty, the time may be passed with a soccer or basketball game, or at an outdoor theater, or listening to the radio or reading the camp newsletter.

_Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and staff reports was used in this report.