Record number of Haitian migrants rescued by Coast Guard

ANDLast week, a group of 67 Haitians aboard a small, rickety boat waved at the United States Coast Guard about 16 miles southeast of Great Inagua, Bahamas. The boat’s sail was torn, US Coast Guard officials noted, and grainy footage from the Coast Guard showed its decks teeming with men, women and children in distress.

The Coast Guard rescue was one of the latest in a growing list of encounters involving Haitian immigrants attempting the perilous voyage to the US by sea. As gang violence, poverty and political instability worsen in Haiti, advocates for immigrants say the number of people trying to come to the US on ships not built for such voyages will likely continue to rise.

Political instability in Haiti makes it nearly impossible to track exactly how many Haitians 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 found about 6,000 Haitian immigrants between October and June — a nearly 300% increase over the entire previous fiscal year. From October 2020 to September 2021, the Coast Guard encountered about 1,500 Haitian migrants, according to Coast Guard records. In most cases, Haitians interdicted by the US Coast Guard are immediately returned to Haiti.

The recent numbers mark a new trend. So far this year, the Coast Guard has interdicted nearly twice as many Haitians at sea as in the previous five fiscal years combined. The number of Haitian migrants found at sea by the Coast Guard began to increase exponentially in mid-March, according to TIME’s analysis.

To meet this increase, the US Coast Guard launched a partnership with the Haitian Coast Guard and other Caribbean nations. It also increased the use of its ships and air patrols, each with a minimum number of personnel on board, depending on the vessel. “We have so many people leaving their country and they are doing it on unsafe, overloaded, rusty vessels, and those vessels are not seaworthy,” says Groll, who works at the Coast Guard’s Miami public affairs office, and says that the biggest concern is preventing the death of migrants.

“Some [the vessels] float,” she says. “But there is no safety equipment on board, no one is wearing a life vest, no navigation lights, no way for anyone to ask for help.”

Haitians are transferred from the small Coast Guard boat Cutter Campbell to the cutter approximately 20 miles south of Turks and Caicos on May 9, 2022. Haitians were repatriated to Haiti on May 11, 2022.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Villa-Rodriguez – US Coast Guard

An impoverished and besieged nation

For decades more Haitians have been leaving the country than returning, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. But 2021 was a particularly damaging year for the nation. On July 7, 2021, the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated. A month later, the country suffered a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying essential infrastructure. A few days after that, a tropical storm hit.

The 2021 tragedies were compounded by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010, from which the country has yet to recover. That earthquake killed an estimated 220,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

This 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, a senior researcher for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, an NGO that investigates abuses of human rights. “There is a very, very significant security crisis,” Muñoz told TIME. “This increase in people leaving Haiti is absolutely predictable.”

On Wednesday night, the US Coast Guard found another ship transporting 101 Haitians.

These overlapping crises corresponded to the global spread of COVID-19. Due to the economic crises related to the pandemic and the prevailing racism, an increasing number of Haitians, who fled to other parts of Latin America, mainly Brazil and Chile, after the 2010 earthquake, began to migrate north to the US- Mexico. There they found a public health measure, Title 42, which allowed US border authorities to expel most Haitians before they could seek US asylum. for the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM). A recent IOM survey of those repatriated back to Haiti between October and January found that over 86% did not plan to remain in Haiti.

See More information: A Haitian’s brutal experience with US border agents sparked outrage. Now he’s telling his story

It is unclear whether the Haitians found at sea by the US Coast Guard are the same Haitians who were previously expelled by the US government; the US Coast Guard does not collect this data.

Louis Herns Marcelin, a sociocultural anthropologist who currently studies migration from Haiti and is director of global health studies at the University of Miami, expects an increasing number of Haitians to try to emigrate by sea. During the research, Marcelin spoke with Haitians who boarded a small boat to leave the country. When the boat capsized and the migrants found themselves again in Haiti, they were still “willing to come back again,” Marcelin told TIME. “So can you understand despair, the level of despair? Because there is no place to live, there is no place to live, there is no place to work, there is no place to dream.”

A Miami Coast Guard Station law enforcement team interdicted 103 migrants aboard a 35-foot sailboat approximately 12 miles east of Biscayne Bay, Florida on September 16, 2021. The Coast Guard Crew Cutter Diligence repatriated 102 Haitians to Haiti following a Biscayne Bay interdiction on September 12, 2021.

US Coast Guard

The Biden administration’s plan to address the root causes of migration to the US has focused primarily 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 increasing seasonal worker visas for Haitians, a family reunification plan for Haitians in the US to apply for their family members to join them and increase the number of Haitians accepted into the US Refugee Admissions Program. The U.S. has also granted Temporary Protection Status, meaning protection from deportation and work permits, to Haitians already in the U.S.

Both Muñoz and Marcelin note that the US effort to help Haiti, including the recent declaration, is insufficient and contradictory. The US recognizes the difficulties and dangers Haitians face, they say, but continues to send Haitians back to Haiti in large numbers. “The United States does not have a clear, organized and structured policy towards Haiti,” says Marcelin, adding: “There is no shame in the way [the U.S.] responds.”

A grieving community

The Coast Guard rescue attempt last week ended safely. The boat remained afloat and no one was killed; all 67 migrants, including the children, were returned to Haiti.

It stands out from many other attempts at crossing that end in abject tragedy. On June 16, mourners gathered at Parroquia Santa Teresa in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the funeral services of 11 Haitian women and girls who drowned after their boat capsized off the coast of Desecheo Island on May 12. agencies managed to rescue 38 people, 36 of whom were Haitians. The Washington Post reports that at least a dozen aboard that boat are still missing.

“It was very difficult” Haitian Bridge Alliance Director Guerline Jozef, who attended the funeral in San Juan, told TIME via WhatsApp. “I couldn’t even speak at the funeral because my heart was so heavy.”

The coffins containing the bodies of 11 dead were covered with Haitian flags. Pictures of the women and girls covered 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 has been totally, totally destabilized, law and order that doesn’t exist,” says Marcelin. “People have to leave the country.”

“What can people expect?” Marcellin adds. “We knew that [death] was going to happen. And it’s happening. What now? That is the question.”

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write to Jasmine Aguilera at [email protected]

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