Fatal Boat Trip shines a light on Haitians fleeing violence

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Haitians are fleeing in greater numbers to the neighboring Dominican Republic, where they board rickety wooden boats painted sky blue to blend into the ocean in an attempt to reach Puerto Rico – a journey in which 11 Haitian women drowned this week, with dozens of other migrants missing.

It was the latest fatal journey, as US authorities said they detained twice as many migrants in and around US jurisdictions in the Caribbean in the past year compared to the previous year.

“We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode,” Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press.

Garrett and others say Haiti’s political instability, coupled with brutal gang violence and a crumbling economy, prompted people to flee, with others doing so via the Dominican Republic. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola, located west of Puerto Rico, with a treacherous area known as Mona’s Passage separating them.

In the most recent capsize, spotted Thursday, 11 bodies of Haitian women were found and 38 people rescued, including 36 Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic. Authorities say one of the rescued people has been charged with human trafficking. The boat capsized about 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, west of Puerto Rico. Dozens are said to be missing.

Garrett said it’s unclear exactly how many migrants were on the boat, but survivors provided authorities with their own estimates. “The numbers we hear are between 60 and 75,” he said.

The search continued on Friday, with the US Coast Guard combing the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico by boat, plane and helicopter.

Rescue efforts began Thursday after a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter saw people clinging to the capsized boat, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said, adding that crews worked All night long.

“We are still looking for the possibility of finding survivors,” he said.

Authorities released footage showing migrants desperately holding the boat in open water as they waited to be rescued. Once ashore, the migrants were escorted to a jetty, with at least one wearing only underwear. Some were taken to ambulances, and eight Haitians remained hospitalized on Friday.

Journeys on rickety boats known as yolas, which Garrett says often have small motors to avoid detection, have long been the cheapest way for migrants to flee their country despite continued warnings about the hazard. Smaller motors mean longer travel, which in turn makes it more dangerous.

He said 30 to 40 migrants were usually on the boats, but those on board said nearly double that number were on this one.

On Saturday, 68 migrants were rescued in the Mona crossing and a woman, believed to be from Haiti, died. On May 7, Customs and Border Protection arrested 60 Haitian migrants, according to the agency, smuggled through southwest Puerto Rico. On May 4, another 59 Haitian migrants were detained in northwestern Puerto Rico. In late March, officials said they arrested more than 120 migrants in three separate maritime smuggling incidents.

From October 2021 to March, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in the waters around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, according to US Customs and Border Protection. Of the Haitians, 348 landed on the uninhabited island of Mona in Puerto Rico and were rescued.

Tom Homan, who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for much of the Trump administration, said migrants in the latest incident may have gotten lost, taking them further from the mainland, or that they may have tried to reach Puerto Rico. , a US territory where they can attempt to seek asylum. Both scenarios are common.

It is unusual to have so many women on board, he said, referring to the 11 people who died.

“These migrants are placing their lives in the hands of people who don’t see them as people,” Garrett said. “They see migrants as commodities to be traded and made money.”

Riskier to stay

Pierre Esperance, executive director of the Haitian National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, said he expects the trips to continue despite continued warnings about the danger.

“It is more risky for Haitians to stay in Haiti than to try to leave Haiti to have a better life,” he said.

A United Nations report noted that kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people have increased by 180% and homicides have increased by 17% over the past year. Dozens of people, including women and children, have been killed in recent weeks amid fresh clashes between gangs vying for territory as their power grows following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The United Nations said last week that civilians were being burned to death and children as young as 10 were gang-raped.

Haiti has also been hit by double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that have shuttered hundreds of schools and businesses and prompted some hospitals and clinics to close temporarily. Additionally, the Biden administration has expelled more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months amid heavy criticism given the country’s downward spiral.

“Even though it’s dangerous to get on a boat, it’s more dangerous for people to stay in Haiti,” Esperance said. “There is no rule of law in Haiti.”

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