SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Haitians are fleeing in greater numbers to neighboring Dominican Republic, where they’ll board rickety wooden boats painted sky blue to blend into the ocean to try to reach Puerto Rico — a journey with 11 Haitian women drowned this week, with dozens of other migrants missing.
It was the latest deadly journey as US authorities said they have detained twice as many migrants in and around US jurisdictions in the Caribbean in the past year as they had a year earlier.
“We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode,” Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol officer for US 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 crumbling economy, has prompted people to flee, and more so through 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.
In the most recent capsize, seen Thursday, 11 bodies of Haitian women were found and 38 people were rescued – 36 of them Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic. According to the authorities, one of the rescued was charged with human smuggling. The boat capsized about 18 kilometers north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, west of Puerto Rico. Dozens are missing.
Garrett said it is unclear exactly how many migrants were on board the boat, but said survivors have given authorities 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 scouring the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico via boat, plane and helicopter.
Rescue efforts 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 crews worked through the night.
“We’re always looking for the opportunity to find survivors,” he said.
Authorities have released images showing migrants clinging desperately to the boat in open water as they await rescue. Once ashore, the migrants were escorted to a pier, with at least one wearing nothing but underwear. Some were taken to ambulances and eight Haitians were still in hospital on Friday.
The trips aboard rickety boats known as yolas, which Garrett said often only have small engines to avoid detection, have long been the cheapest way for migrants to flee their country, despite constant warnings about the danger. The smaller engines mean a longer trip, which in turn makes it more dangerous.
He said 30 to 40 migrants are usually on the boats, but those on board said nearly double that number were 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, according to the agency, had been smuggled through southwestern Puerto Rico. On May 4, another 59 Haitian migrants were detained in northwestern Puerto Rico. In late March, officials said they had detained more than 120 migrants in three separate maritime smuggling incidents.
According to the US Customs and Border Protection, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in the waters around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands from October 2021 to March. Of the Haitians, 348 landed on the uninhabited Mona Island in Puerto Rico and were rescued.
Tom Homan, who served as acting director of U.S. immigration and customs enforcement for much of the Trump administration, said the migrants may have become lost in the latest incident, driving them further away from the U.S. mainland, or that they were may have tried to reach Puerto Rico. , a US territory where they can try to apply for asylum. Both scenarios are common.
It’s unusual to have so many women on board, he said, referring to the 11 dead.
“These migrants are putting their lives in the hands of people who don’t see them as people,” Garrett said. “They see the migrants as commodities to trade and make money from.”
Pierre Espérance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said he expects the trips to continue despite continued warnings about the danger.
“It is more risky for Haitian people to stay in Haiti than to try to leave Haiti to get a better life,” he said.
A United Nations report notes that the number of kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people has increased by 180% in the past year and the murder rate has increased by 17%. Dozens of people, including women and children, have been killed in recent weeks in new clashes between gangs fighting for territory as their power grows after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. The United Nations said last week that civilians are being burned alive and that children as young as 10 are being raped.
Haiti has also been hit by double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that has 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 under fierce criticism amid the country’s downward spiral.
“Even if it’s dangerous to get into a boat, it’s more dangerous for people to stay in Haiti,” Espérance said. “There is no rule of law in Haiti.”
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego, California, contributed.