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Haitian Cold War Refugees

Haitian Cold War Refugees

Haitian Cold War Refugees: A Look Back at their Journey


The Cold War Era, marked by heightened tension between the two superpowers of the world, the Soviet Union and the United States, was a time of political unrest and violence across the world. During this time, many people fled their homes in search of a better life, especially those living in countries that experienced political instability and civil war. This article explores the journey of the Haitian Cold War refugees and their contribution to American society.

Historical Context

Haiti is a small island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. It was under French colonial rule until 1804 when it gained independence. However, several political conflicts continued to plague the country over the years. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a period of authoritarian regimes, political repression, and economic crises, leading to widespread poverty and societal unrest.

Many Haitians, especially the educated elites, left the country in search of better opportunities overseas. The United States and Canada were popular destinations for Haitian intellectuals, professionals, and students because of the availability of jobs and educational opportunities.

However, the 1960s also witnessed a period of heightened Cuban-U.S relations, which had a significant impact on the Haitian overseas community. The United States government was afraid that Cuba might export communism to other Caribbean countries. Therefore, the U.S. implemented strict immigration policies to prevent communist infiltration. Haitians, being of African descent, were perceived as a potential threat and were often targeted for deportation.

The Haitian Refugee Crisis

The ‘Haitian Refugee Crisis’ refers to the period between the late 1970s and early 1990s when thousands of Haitian refugees arrived in the United States. This migration wave was caused by political instability, economic collapse, and human rights violations that plagued Haiti during that period.

In 1977, scandals involving U.S. immigration officials surfaced, revealing discriminatory policies towards Haitian refugees. The officials were accused of denying Haitian refugees their legal rights to asylum and deporting them back to Haiti, where they risked persecution and even death.

To address the concerns about human rights violations and discriminatory policies, the U.S. government created the Haitian Refugee Center (HRC) in 1979. The Center provided counseling and legal services to Haitian refugees while advocating for their rights in the U.S.

The first significant influx of refugees occurred in 1980 after a group of Haitians hijacked a boat and landed on the shores of Florida. Many more refugees arrived in subsequent years, often traveling by boat, and risking their lives in the process. These were known as the ‘boat people.’

The U.S. government initially responded to the Haitian refugee crisis by detaining the refugees and screening them for asylum eligibility. However, the screening process was often discriminatory, with many Haitians being denied asylum and deported back to Haiti.

The U.S. government eventually changed its policy towards Haitian refugees in 1981, granting them ‘parolee status.’ This meant that they could remain in the U.S. while their asylum claims were being processed. This was a stark contrast to the previous policy, which detained and deported Haitian refugees.

The Struggle for Asylum

Despite their efforts to seek asylum in the United States, many Haitian refugees faced significant challenges. A majority did not have legal representation, and the screening process was often discriminatory. Most were unfamiliar with the legal system and could not afford legal representation.

In 1991, a military coup ousted Haiti’s democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was popular among Haitian refugees in the United States. Many Haitians feared persecution if they were to return to Haiti under military rule.

The coup resulted in an increase in the number of Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. However, screeners were often biased against Haitian refugees, believing that they were economic migrants rather than political refugees, which made it challenging to secure asylum.

The Haitian Refugee Center (HRC) and other human rights groups were instrumental in advocating for the Haitian refugees’ legal rights. HRC provided legal services and education programs to Haitian refugees while lobbying the U.S. government to provide fair and impartial screening.

The Role of the Haitian Community

The Haitian community in the United States played a critical role in supporting the Haitian refugees who arrived during the Cold War. Many Haitian organizations provided legal services, financial support, and emotional support to refugees.

Haitian cultural organizations also helped to integrate Haitian refugees into American society. They provided language classes, cultural heritage sessions, and social gatherings where refugees could meet other members of the Haitian community.

Haitian-American organizations also lobbied the U.S. government to eliminate discriminatory policies towards Haitian refugees. They held protests and rallies demanding that the U.S. recognize political persecution in Haiti and grant asylum to Haitian refugees.

The Haitian community’s efforts to support the Haitian refugees in the United States have been instrumental in their successful integration into American society. Many Haitian refugees went on to become successful professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, contributing significantly to U.S. society.


The Haitian Cold War refugees faced numerous challenges in their journey to the United States. They left behind a country plagued by political repression, economic crises, and widespread poverty. The U.S. government’s discriminatory policies towards Haitian refugees resulted in the violation of their legal rights and their deportation back to Haiti, where they faced persecution.

However, the Haitian community in the United States played a critical role in advocating for the Haitian refugees’ rights. They provided legal services, financial support, and emotional support, helping refugees to integrate into U.S. society. Many Haitian refugees went on to become successful professionals, contributing significantly to American society.

Today, the United States continues to face challenges with regards to migration policies. The Haitian refugee crisis serves as a reminder of the importance of treating refugees and immigrants with dignity and respect while providing them with opportunities to contribute to the growth of society. The U.S. government continues to provide asylum to Haitians as well as other refugees and intending immigrants as stipulated by the immigration laws of the country.

Approximately 150 years later, there were more Haitian-Americans in waiting. The Duvaliers’ oppressive rule of Haiti was the cause of refugeeism for thousands of Haitians from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Francois Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, was the chief symbol of the problems that plagued Haiti during the Cold Warasylum, recognizing them only as economic migrants. Nonetheless, over time many more refugees made their way to American territory even after the Duvaliers and during the time of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.