SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Haitians are fleeing in growing numbers to the Dominican Republic, where they board flimsy wooden boats painted sky blue to blend in with the water in an attempt to reach Puerto Rico – a journey that has claimed the lives of 11 Haitian women this week, with scores more missing.
It was the latest fatal expedition in a year in which US authorities say they captured twice as many migrants in and around US territory in the Caribbean as a year prior.
The Associated Press quoted Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol agent for US Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico, as saying, “We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode.”
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According to Garrett and others, Haiti’s political instability, along with gang violence and a disintegrating economy, has encouraged people to escape, with the Dominican Republic being the most popular destination. Both countries share the island of Hispaniola, which sits west of Puerto Rico, and are separated by the hazardous Mona Passage.
The most recent capsizing, which occurred on Thursday, resulted in the discovery of 11 dead of Haitian women and the rescue of 38 persons, 36 of them were Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic. One of those rescued has been charged with people smuggling, according to authorities. The boat sank 11 miles (18 kilometres) north of Desecheo, an uninhabited island west of Puerto Rico. Dozens are thought to be missing.
Garrett said it’s unclear how many migrants were on board the boat, but survivors supplied their own estimations to authorities. “We’re hearing between between 60 and 75 percent,” he said.
The search continued on Friday, with the US Coast Guard using a boat, plane, and helicopter to seek the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico.
Rescue operations began on Thursday after a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter saw passengers clinging to the upturned boat, according to US Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad.
He stated, “We always look for the potential of finding survivors.”
Authorities posted photos of migrants helplessly clinging to the boat in open waters while waiting for rescue. The migrants were taken down a pier as they arrived, with at least one of them wearing nothing but underwear. On Friday, eight Haitians remained hospitalised after being brought to ambulances.
Despite continuous warnings about the danger, travels aboard decrepit boats known as yolas, which Garrett said frequently have only modest motors to evade detection, have long been the cheapest method for migrants to abandon their nation. The smaller motors entail a longer journey, which is inherently riskier.
He added the boats generally carry 30 to 40 migrants, but those on board stated this one had roughly twice that amount.
68 migrants were rescued in the Mona Passage on Saturday, and one woman, thought to be from Haiti, perished.On May 7, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 60 Haitian migrants smuggled via southwest Puerto Rico, according to the agency. Another 59 Haitian migrants were arrested in northwest Puerto Rico on May 4. Officials say they apprehended around 120 migrants in three different marine smuggling events in late March.
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According to US Customs and Border Protection, 571 Haitians and 252 Dominicans were apprehended in waters around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands from October 2021 to March 2022. 348 Haitians were rescued after landing on Puerto Rico’s isolated Mona Island.
The migrants in the latest incident may have gotten lost, taking them further from the US mainland, or they may have been trying to reach Puerto Rico, a US territory where they can seek asylum, according to Tom Homan, who was acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement during much of the Trump administration. Both are common scenarios.
He stated having so many ladies on board was rare, alluding to the 11 that died.
“These migrants are entrusting their life to people who do not regard them as human beings,” Garrett remarked. “They consider migrants as commodities that can be traded and profited from.”
The executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, Pierre Espérance, stated that expects the trips to continue despite ongoing warnings about the danger.
“It’s riskier for Haitians to stay in Haiti than it is to try to emigrate for a better life,” he said.
Kidnappings have surged 180 percent and killings have increased 17 percent in the country of more than 11 million people, according to a UN report. Hundreds of people, including women and children, have been slaughtered in recent weeks as gangs fight for territory as their dominance expands in the aftermath of President Jovenel Mose’s killing on July 7. According to the United Nations, citizens are being burned alive and children as young as ten are being gang raped.
Haiti has also been hammered by double-digit inflation, acute gas shortages, and gang violence, which has forced the closure of hundreds of schools and businesses, as well as some hospitals and clinics. In addition, given Haiti’s downward slide, the Biden administration has deported over 20,000 Haitians in recent months, drawing widespread condemnation.
“It’s more perilous for people to stay in Haiti than it is to get into a boat,” Espérance added. “In Haiti, there is no rule of law.”