ELast week, the United States Coast Guard was contacted by 67 Haitians who were aboard a small and rickety boat. They are located 16 miles southwest of Great Inagua in Bahamas. The boat’s sail was torn, U.S. Coast Guard officials noted, and grainy Coast Guard footage showed its decks were lined with men, women, and children in distress.
The Coast Guard’s rescue was among the latest in a growing list of encounters involving Haitian migrants attempting the dangerous journey to the U.S. by sea. Advocates for migrants say that as gang violence and poverty worsen in Haiti the number of Haitians attempting to travel to the U.S. by sea in boats not designed to carry them is expected to rise.
According to Nicole Groll, Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Nicole Groll, it is difficult to determine exactly how many Haitians fled the country due to political instability. The Coast Guard does not have a sea-interdictions database and cannot track them. But a TIME analysis of all Coast Guard press releases posted on social media shows that the Coast Guard has encountered about 6,000 Haitian migrants between October and June—a nearly 300% increase over the entire previous fiscal year. From October 2020 through September 2021, the Coast Guard encountered about 1,500 Haitian migrants, according to the Coast Guard’s records. The majority of Haitians arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard were immediately sent back to Haiti.
These numbers are a sign of a changing trend. The Coast Guard has arrested nearly twice the number of Haitians in the sea this year than it did the five previous fiscal years. The number of Haitian migrants encountered at sea by the Coast Guard began to increase exponentially by mid-March, TIME’s analysis found.
The U.S. Coast Guard launched a partnership to meet the needs of the Haiti Coast Guard, and other Caribbean countries. The Coast Guard has increased its use of ships and patrols. Each vessel has an assigned minimum of personnel. “We have so many people leaving their country and they’re doing it in unsafe, overladed, rusted vessels, and these vessels are not seaworthy,” says Groll, who works in the Coast Guard’s Miami public affairs office, and says the biggest concern is preventing migrant deaths.
“Some of [the vessels] float,” she says. “But there’s no safety equipment on board, nobody is wearing a life jacket, no navigation lights, no way for anyone to call for help.”
Haitians were transferred by Coast Guard Cutter Campbell to the cutter 20 miles south-east of Turks and Caicos on May 9, 2022. On May 11, 2022, the Haitians were returned to Haiti.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Villa-Rodriguez—U.S. Coast Guard
A nation in crisis and poverty
According to the Migration Policy Institute (a nonpartisan research group), more Haitians are leaving than they have returned for many decades. The nation was particularly affected by 2021. On July 7, 2021, Haiti President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. The country was struck by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake a month later. It killed over 2,200 people, and damaged vital infrastructure. A tropical storm struck a few days later.
These tragedies were made worse by the 2010 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which has not yet been fully repaired. The earthquake left 1.5 million homeless and killed 220,000 people.
Such devastation is now the backdrop for worsening political instability and a dramatic rise in gang activity and violent crime, according to research conducted by César Muñoz, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, an NGO that investigates human rights abuses. “There’s a very, very significant security crisis,” Muñoz tells TIME. “This increase in people who are leaving Haiti is absolutely foreseeable.”
The U.S. Coast Guard was confronted Wednesday night by another shipCarrying 101 Haitians
This overlapping crisis coincided with globalization of COVID-19. A growing number of Haitians began to migrate northward to the U.S. border from Mexico after fleeing to Latin America following the 2010 earthquake. They encountered Title 42, a U.S. public health measure that allowed them to deport most Haitians prior to their being allowed to apply for asylum in the U.S. Since September, U.S. officials have used Title 42 to expel more than 25,800 Haitians back to Haiti, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). IOM conducted a survey in January and October of people who were repatriated from Haiti. More than 86% said they did not want to return to Haiti.
Continue reading: A Haitian Man’s Brutal Experience With U.S. Border Agents Sparked Outrage. Now He’s Telling His Story
The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t collect any data that would indicate if the Haitians they encounter at sea are actually the same people expelled from the U.S.
Louis Herns Marcelin is a sociocultural ananthropologist and currently studies migration from Haiti. He is also the Director of Global Health Studies, University of Miami. Marcelin expects that a greater number of Haitians will attempt to migrate by sea. Marcelin interviewed Haitians who boarded small boats to flee the country while Marcelin was conducting research. When the boat capsized and the migrants found themselves again in Haiti, they were still “willing to go back again,” Marcelin tells TIME. “So can you understand the desperation, the level of desperation? Because there is no place to inhabit, there is no place to live, there is no place to work, there is no place to dream.”
On Sep. 16, 2021, 103 migrants were arrested aboard a boat measuring 35 feet. It was located 12 miles east off Biscayne bay, Florida. After an Interdiction Off Biscayne Bay, Sep. 12, 2021, the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence crew returned 102 Haitians back to Haiti.
U.S. Coast Guard
The Biden Administration’s plan to address the root causes of migration to the U.S. has focused largely on Central America, but a small component includes resources for Haitians. Twenty countries signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection at the 9th Annual Summit of the Americas. This includes increasing the visas of seasonal workers for Haitians and a plan for family reunification so that Haitians living in the U.S. may petition to have their relatives join them. It also increases the acceptance rate of Haitians into the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Haitians currently in the U.S. have been awarded Temporary Protection Status. This means protection from deportation, and work permits.
Both Muñoz and Marcelin note that the U.S. effort to aid Haiti, including the recent declaration, is both insufficient and contradictory. Both Marcelin and Munoz say that while the U.S. recognises the difficulties and dangers facing Haitians but continues to send large numbers of Haitians home to Haiti. “The United States doesn’t have a clear, organized, structured policy toward Haiti,” Marcelin says, adding, “There is no shame in the way that [the U.S.] responds.”
The community is in mourning
The Coast Guard’s rescue attempt last week ended safely. All 67 migrants were safely returned to Haiti, and the boat was able to remain afloat.
The crossing stands out from others that have ended in tragedy. The funeral service for 11 Haitian girls and women who died in the boat’s sinking off Puerto Rico’s Desecheo Island coast on May 12 was held at the Parroquia Santa Teresa, San Juan. U.S. Coast Guard, other rescue agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard were able rescue 38 persons of which 36 were Haitian. According to the Washington Post, at least 12 people aboard this boat remain missing.
“It was really difficult,” Haitian Bridge AllianceGuerline Jozef is the director of TIME. Guerline Jozef attended the San Juan funeral service and spoke with TIME through WhatsApp. “I couldn’t even speak at the funeral because my heart was so heavy.”
Haitian flags were used to decorate the caskets holding 11 bodies. Photographs of women and girls were displayed along the edges of the church. They were surrounded by flowers. “Through time we have seen a perfect storm in which you have crippling serial disasters with an economy that has been totally, totally destabilized, law and order that doesn’t exist,” Marcelin says. “People have to leave the country.”
“What can people expect?” Marcelin adds. “We knew that [death]It was inevitable. This is what it looks like. What now? That’s the question.”
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