A truck carrying rice, beans, cooking oil and planting seeds left Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince for Île de la Tortue Tuesday as part of the Haitian government’s emergency response to stem the flow of deadly migrant smuggling from the offshore island’s beaches.
In recent months, dozens of Haitians have died in search of a better life as unscrupulous boat captains take advantage of the island residents’ desperation, and the island’s poorly guarded northwest location, to turn it into a popular jumping-off point for migrant journeys to the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Florida.
“This is unbearable, and we need to act,” Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the Miami Herald from Paris, where he was en route to an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He said he plans to visit the island next week.
In addition to providing the 1,000 food kits, Lamothe formed an emergency task force, asking key members of his Cabinet “to provide me with a plan to address the hunger and help the fishermen.”
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The initial goal is to help 10,000 of the island’s 45,000 residents, he said.
Lamothe said he was swayed to act after reading the Herald’s account of the desperate conditions on the island, which boasts mangrove-lined and unspoiled, sun-drenched beaches. But behind the beauty, hand-built wooden sloops litter the shores, and the island is a bastion of underdevelopment with no roads, no latrines, no jobs and just four police officers.
Still mourning the loss of relatives and friends from a November boat tragedy off the Bahamas, islanders in the village of Basse-Terre said they are still willing to risk their lives despite the danger in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere.
“Look around, not one of us here is working. All we do is stare into the horizon, all day, every day,” said Francois Pierre, an unemployed fisherman who lives in the village of Cayonne.
Pierre said that if he were offered the opportunity to take one of the clandestine voyages, he would seize it.
“We have nothing to do,” he said. “There is nothing holding us back.”
Amos Francois, 40, an unemployed father of four who lives in nearby Basse-Terre, said villagers have nothing to lose by taking the risky trips in boats that can easily capsize in the slightest rough weather.
“We are already dead,” said Francois, 40, an unemployed father of four. “We are all suffering.”
At least 30 Haitians died off the Bahamas after a 40-foot wooden sailboat capsized five days after launching from the nearby village of Carénage. The 111 survivors went four days without food before being spotted by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
Weeks later, on Christmas Day, 17 migrants died in the water off the Turks and Caicos Islands as officials were towing another dangerously overcrowded boat into port.
Villagers said that while the tragedies created a temporary lull in smuggling operations, they are beginning to resume. Just this week, a wooden boat was purchased and anchored for a migrant operation, several villagers told the Herald.
Klaus Eberwein, who was tapped by Lamothe to head the emergency task force, said its first meeting would take place Wednesday. The immediate goal is “to feed the people and stop the people from taking to the ocean,” he said.
In the longer term, Eberwein said, the government wants to promote tourism and investment on the island as part of its extreme poverty reduction program, which is already underway on other islands off Haiti’s coast. Those plans, along with other measures, will be discussed during the meeting, he said.
But Sagesse-Fils Loriston, the local government representative in Basse-Terre, said it would take more than 12 days’ worth of rice and beans to 1,000 families to keep islanders off the boats. What Île de la Tortue needs, said Loriston, who has proposed his own development plan, is jobs and training.
“They will eat for a day, and then what?” Loriston said. “What the people need is a way to make a living, to keep them from taking the boats.”
Lamothe and Haitian President Michel Martelly have come under fire in recent months by governments of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, which have accused Haiti of not doing enough to stem the flow of migrants.
The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and the U.S. Coast Guard have independently produced public service announcements warning Haitians not to be fooled by reckless racketeers offering to take them to their deaths in boats no sturdier than a peanut shell.
Lamothe said that after reading the Herald article published Tuesday, he immediately fired off several emails. One seeks to get monthly rice donations to the island. Another was to the U.S. ambassador in Haiti, Pamela White.
Lamothe asked White’s help in getting the U.S. Agency for International Development to initiate a food program on the island. He also asked White to help restore a U.S.-funded program to the International Organization for Migration that attempted to address the root causes of high migration flows. After the program’s $2.6 million grant ran out in October, the State Department opted not to renew the funds.
Drazan Rozic, who managed the program on behalf of IOM, has been unsuccessfully shopping around a replacement effort — a $5.1 million job-creation package for the northwest.
On Tuesday, he said he received a request by the State Department to meet next week to discuss the funding cut.