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Haitians find new ways to escape

With the U.S. Coast Guard repatriating Haitians picked up in boats trying to flee to Florida, many Haitians are increasingly choosing other routes and methods in their attempt to escape, diplomats and human rights officials say.

With political repression and economic hardship still severe, many Haitians are determined to leave. Four boatloads of Haitian refugees have been picked up at sea north of Haiti since Feb.

4, the most in a single month since military leaders refused to allow the return of Haiti's exiled president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But diplomats and rights officials say the risk of repatriation has led many Haitians to explore alternative routes to flee the Caribbean country. One new trend has been a rise in the number of Haitians trying to reach the Turks and Caicos Islands aboard freighters and sailing vessels.

Sometimes ill-prepared, sometimes carrying false travel and identification papers, those migrants try to pass themselves off as crew members on boats that regularly ply their trade between Haiti and the British-owned islands, diplomats said.

If they can get past the U.S. Coast Guard and reach land, they can try to island-hop up the Bahamas and embark on regularly scheduled voyages to Florida.

"It's either more widely used, or just discovered," Cmdr. Dave Breuninger of the Coast Guard said of the new route. Reliable estimates of the number of Haitians using that strategy were unavailable.

Anne Fuller, associate director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, said that many Haitians appear to have realized their chances of making it to Florida from Haiti on wooden boats are far outweighed by the risk of drowning or repatriation.

"I think people are afraid of spending several hundred dollars and losing it all," Fuller said.

Less than 1,000 boat people have been returned to Haiti since the U.S. order to forcibly repatriate Haitians took effect in January 1993, compared with more than 30,000 who were returned in the 16 months following the September 1991 military coup against Aristide.

Another alternative increasingly chosen by Haitians seeking to escape is to slip over the border to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and find work in sugar fields.