Monday, May 21, 2007

Illegal immigrants from Haiti are causing problems for their neighbors

Marc Lacey:

There is no conceivable way to get from this island to Miami by bus. But the traffickers who ply Haiti’s northern coastline in search of those willing to risk their bleak lives for better ones abroad tell some tall tales to fill their rickety boats.

They describe this island chain, 150 miles off Haiti’s northern coast, as being an easy hop to Miami, the ultimate goal of most migrating Haitians. Sometimes they tell migrants from Haiti’s interior that the United States is a bus ride away as they talk of the big paychecks and full stomachs that await them.

The reality is different, of course, as was made clear when an overloaded Haitian sloop capsized off the coast of Turks and Caicos recently. As many as 90 migrants may have died in that episode, which passengers on the vessel blamed on the aggressive tactics of the local police.

They were part of a swelling number of Haitians abandoning their country this year, apparently disillusioned with the slow pace of change coming from Haiti’s year-old government. But with patrols along the Florida coastline making it increasingly difficult to land there, desperate Haitians are “island hopping,” as the United States Coast Guard calls it, looking for alternative routes and badly straining relations with their neighbors.

Turks and Caicos is hop No. 1, and it is not altogether happy about it. Local Haitians charge that authorities’ efforts to combat illegal migrants have become so aggressive that they believe accusations that a police boat may have caused the capsizing of the Haitian vessel on May 4, despite official denials.

Haitians now make up a huge percentage of the population here, exceeding the number of other residents, according to government estimates. With migrant boats landing regularly, authorities here and across the Caribbean are struggling to contain them.

“It’s a tremendous strain on the government, and we’d appreciate international assistance,” said Lee Penn, who runs the detention center for illegal migrants in Providenciales, the financial capital of Turks and Caicos. “We’re feeding them and housing them and repatriating them — and it’s costing us.”

What exactly happened at sea on May 4 remains uncertain, and is still under investigation by maritime authorities from Britain, which administers the territory.

But it is clear that the voyage was hellish. After a day and a half packed together in a tiny craft, with nothing but water all around, the migrants finally saw lights on the horizon as they approached Turks and Caicos. Excitement grew, and then dreams turned to nightmares.

With a police boat on the scene in rough waters, the Haitian boat went over on its side. Screams filled the air and bodies hit the water. In all, 61 dead Haitians were plucked from the sea, some of them with shark bites. Twenty or so others were never found.

“The closest thing I could compare it to was Katrina, with that many people floating in the water,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Arko, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who responded to the scene and who had done search-and-rescue work over post-hurricane New Orleans.

Of the 69 men and nine women who survived, none would succeed in escaping their desperate lives back home. All were flown back to Cap Haitien, a city on Haiti’s northern coast and a major departure point for migrants.

Mass grave burial angers Haitians' kin

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