Fatal boat ride shows Haitians fleeing violence

Fatal boat ride shows Haitians fleeing violence

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

It was the latest deadly trip as US authorities said they arrested twice as many migrants in and around US jurisdictions in the Caribbean last year as they did the previous year.

“We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode,” Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol agent 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 collapsing economy, have caused people to flee even more about the Dominican Republic. Both countries share the island of Hispaniola, which lies west of Puerto Rico, with a treacherous area known as the Mona Passage separating the two.

The latest capsize, discovered Thursday, found 11 Haitian women’s bodies and rescued 38 people — 36 Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic. Authorities say one of those rescued has been charged with human smuggling. The boat capsized about 11 miles north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, west of Puerto Rico. Dozens are believed to be missing.

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

The search continued Friday, with the US Coast Guard using boats, planes and helicopters to sweep the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico.

The rescue effort began Thursday after a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter saw people clinging to the capsized boat, US Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said, adding that crews were working through the night had.

“We’re always looking for an opportunity to find survivors,” he said.

Authorities released images showing migrants desperately holding the boat in open water while awaiting rescue. Once ashore, the migrants were escorted down a pier, with at least one wearing only underwear. Some were taken in ambulances and eight Haitians remained hospitalized on Friday.

The trips aboard rickety boats known as yolas, which Garrett says often have small engines to avoid detection, have long been the cheapest way for migrants to flee their country, despite persistent warnings of the danger. The smaller engines mean a longer ride, which in turn makes them more dangerous.

He said there were usually 30 to 40 migrants on the boats, but those on board said there were almost twice as many on this one.

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

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

Tom Homan, who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during much of the Trump administration, said the migrants in the latest incident may have lost their way and traveled farther from the U.S. mainland or attempted to reach Puerto Rico US territory where they can attempt to apply for asylum. Both scenarios are common.

It was unusual to have so many women on board, he said, referring to the eleven dead.

“These migrants are putting their lives in the hands of people they don’t see as people,” Garrett said. “They see migrants as commodities that can be used to make money.”

Pierre Espérance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said he expected travel to continue despite ongoing warnings of the danger.

“For Haitians, staying in Haiti is riskier than trying to leave Haiti for a better life,” he said.

A United Nations report found that kidnappings of more than 11 million people in the country increased by 180% last year and homicides by 17%. Dozens of people, including women and children, have been killed in recent weeks in fresh clashes between gangs fighting over territory as their power surges after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The United Nations said last week civilians are being burned alive and children as young as 10 are being gang raped.

Haiti has also been hit by double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that have closed hundreds of schools and businesses and forced some hospitals and clinics to close temporarily. In addition, the Biden administration has expelled more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months, amid heavy criticism amid 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,” Espérance said. “There is no rule of law in Haiti.”

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Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego, California contributed.

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