EEarly last week, a group of 67 Haitians aboard a small, rickety boat flagged down the U.S. Coast Guard about 16 miles southeast of Great Inagua, Bahamas. The boat’s sail was torn, U.S. Coast Guard officials noted, and grainy Coast Guard footage showed her decks lined with distressed men, women and children.
The Coast Guard rescue was among the latest in a growing list of encounters involving Haitian migrants attempting the dangerous journey to the United States by sea. As gang violence, poverty and political instability worsen in Haiti, migrant advocates say the number of people trying to come to the United States on ships that are not built for such voyages should continue to increase.
Political instability in Haiti makes it nearly impossible to accurately track the number of Haitians who have fled in recent months and the Coast Guard itself does not maintain a database of interdictions at sea, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Nicole Groll. But a TIME analysis of all Coast Guard press releases posted on social media shows that the Coast Guard encountered approximately 6,000 Haitian migrants between October and June, an increase of nearly 300% from overall. of the previous year. From October 2020 to September 2021, the Coast Guard encountered approximately 1,500 Haitian migrants, according to Coast Guard records. In most cases, Haitians intercepted by the US Coast Guard are immediately returned to Haiti.
Recent figures mark a new trend. So far this year, the Coast Guard has intercepted nearly twice as many Haitians at sea as in the previous five years combined. The number of Haitian migrants encountered at sea by the Coast Guard began to increase exponentially in mid-March, according to TIME analysis.
To address this increase, the US Coast Guard has launched a partnership with the Haiti Coast Guard and other Caribbean countries. It has also increased the use of its ships and air patrols, each of which has a minimum number of personnel on board, depending on the ship. “We have so many people leaving their country and they’re doing it in dangerous, overloaded, rusty ships, and those ships are not seaworthy,” says Groll, who works in the Coast Guard’s public affairs office in Miami, and says the biggest concern is preventing migrant deaths.
“A part of [the vessels] float,” she says. “But there is no safety equipment on board, no one wearing life jackets, no navigation lights, no way for anyone to call for help.”
The Haitians are transferred from the small boat of the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell to the cutter about 20 miles south of the Turks and Caicos Islands, May 9, 2022. The Haitians were repatriated to Haiti on May 11, 2022.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Villa-Rodriguez – US Coast Guard
A poor and beleaguered nation
According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, more Haitians have left the country than returned in decades. But 2021 has been a particularly damaging year for the nation. On July 7, 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. A month later, the country experienced a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying critical infrastructure. A few days later, a tropical storm hit.
The 2021 tragedies were compounded by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 from which the country has yet to recover. This earthquake killed an estimated 220,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.
Such devastation is now the backdrop for worsening political instability and a dramatic increase in gang activity and violent crime, according to research by César Muñoz, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. , an NGO that investigates human rights violations. “There is a very, very significant security crisis,” Muñoz told TIME. “This increase in the number of people leaving Haiti is absolutely predictable.”
On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Coast Guard met another ship carrying 101 Haitians.
These overlapping crises corresponded to the global spread of COVID-19. Due to pandemic-related economic downturns and prevailing racism, increasing numbers of Haitians, who had fled to other parts of Latin America, primarily Brazil and Chile, after the 2010 earthquake, began to migrate north to the US-Mexico border. There they encountered a public health measure, Title 42, which allowed US border officials to deport most Haitians before they were allowed to seek asylum in the United States. Since September, US authorities have used Title 42 to deport more than 25,800 Haitians to Haiti, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). A recent IOM survey of those who repatriated to Haiti between October and January found that more than 86% had no intention of staying in Haiti.
Read more: A Haitian’s brutal experience with US border agents has sparked outrage. Now he’s telling his story
It is unclear whether the Haitians encountered at sea by the US Coast Guard are the same Haitians who were previously deported by the US government; the US Coast Guard does not collect this data.
Louis Herns Marcelin, a socio-cultural anthropologist who currently studies migration from Haiti and is the director of global health studies at the University of Miami, expects increasing numbers of Haitians to attempt to emigrate by maritime. While conducting research, Marcelin spoke with Haitians who boarded a small boat to leave the country. When the boat capsized and the migrants found themselves back in Haiti, they were still “willing to go back,” Marcelin told TIME. “So can you understand the desperation, the level of desperation? Because there is no place to dwell, there is no place to live, there is no place to work, there is no place to dream.
A law enforcement team from Coast Guard Station Miami interdicted 103 migrants aboard a 35-foot sailboat about 12 miles east of Biscayne Bay, Florida on September 16 2021. Coast Guard Cutter Diligence crew repatriated 102 Haitians to Haiti, following an interdiction off Biscayne Bay on September 12, 2021.
US Coast Guard
The Biden administration’s plan to address the root causes of migration to the United States has largely focused on Central America, but a small component includes resources for Haitians. At the 9th Annual Summit of the Americas earlier this month, 20 countries signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which includes increased seasonal worker visas for Haitians, a family reunification plan so that Haitians in the United States can ask family members to join them and increase the number of Haitians accepted into the U.S. refugee admissions program. The United States has also granted temporary protected status, that is, protection from deportation and work permits, to Haitians already in the United States.
Muñoz and Marcelin both note that the US effort to help Haiti, including the recent statement, is both insufficient and contradictory. The United States recognizes the hardships and dangers that Haitians face, they say, but continues to return Haitians to Haiti in large numbers. “The United States does not have a clear, organized and structured policy toward Haiti,” said Marcelin, adding, “There is no shame in what [the U.S.] respond.
A community in mourning
The Coast Guard’s rescue attempt last week ended safely. The boat remained afloat and no one was killed; all 67 migrants, including children, were returned to Haiti.
It stands apart from many other crossing attempts that end in abject tragedy. On June 16, mourners gathered at the Parroquia Santa Teresa in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the funeral of 11 Haitian women and girls who drowned after their boat capsized off the island of Desecheo on May 12. The U.S. Coast Guard and other relief agencies were able to rescue 38 people, including 36 Haitians. The Washington Post reports that at least a dozen aboard that boat are still missing.
“It was really difficult” Haitian Bridge Alliance director Guerline Jozef, who attended the funeral service in San Juan, tells TIME on WhatsApp. “I couldn’t even speak at the funeral because my heart was so heavy.”
The coffins containing the bodies of 11 dead were draped in Haitian flags. Pictures of women and girls lined the edge of the church, surrounded by flowers. “Over time, we’ve seen a perfect storm where you have crippling serial disasters with an economy that’s been totally, totally destabilized, law and order that doesn’t exist,” Marcelin says. “People have to leave the country.”
“What can people expect? adds Marcelin. “We knew that [death] was going to happen. And it happens. Now what? That’s the question.
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