Bahamians call for talks with Haiti over migrant smuggling

The Bahamas’ foreign minister said Wednesday his nation will seek to hold talks with Haiti and others in the coming days over ways to discourage migrant smuggling.

“This tragic story continues with too much regularity despite strenuous efforts to stop and discourage it,” Foreign and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell said. “This is a human tragedy.”

Mitchell’s announcement came as the U.S. Coast Guard ended its assistance in a harrowing search and recovery for missing Haitian migrants who were aboard a 40-foot wooden sailboat that capsized off the Bahamas Coast in the Exuma chain of islands.

At least 30 migrants were confirmed dead. But on Wednesday, Bahamian authorities were still struggling to retrieve all the bodies, a spokesman for the Royal Bahamas Defence Force said.

“We’ve been having difficulty getting to them, ” said Defence Force spokesman Lt. Origin Deleveaux, adding that they had enlisted the help of local fishermen. “The water around there is extremely, extremely shallow.”

U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas military had resumed their search at daybreak after rescuing 110 Haitian migrants. An additional survivor was rescued Wednesday morning 13 miles northeast of the capsized boat.

“He was dehydrated, but considering the circumstances, he was pretty lucky,” U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Mark Barney said.

By late afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard had been informed their assistance was no longer needed.

Meanwhile, a Bahamian military vessel was en route to Ragged Island where a second group of Haitians – as many as 60 – were stranded.

The simultaneous Haitian migrant smuggling operations have become common lately as Bahamian and U.S. officials report an increase of undocumented Haitians trying to enter the United States.

“We again urge people not to take the risky journeys on the high seas which too often lead to the loss of life and the tragedy that occurred in the Exuma Cays,” said Mitchell, noting the Bahamas plans to take additional measures to prosecute smugglers.

Antonio Rodrigue, Haiti’s ambassador to the Bahamas, said migrants told him that they left from the L’île de la Tortue, a small island off Haiti’s northwest coast.

“Not all of them are from the northwest,” Rodrigue said of the 111 survivors. “What struck me was the number of young people, teenagers.”

The boat left on Nov. 18, and officials said they believed that the Haitians who died did so from dehydration and starvation. The boat flipped sometime overnight Monday near Harvey Cay in the Exuma chain, about 200 miles southeast of Miami.

A source familiar with the search and rescue operation told the Herald that the events began Friday after a fisherman reported spotting a Haitian-style fishing boat in Bahamian waters. Royal Bahamas Defense Force officers searched unsuccessfully for the boat, but a tip then led police to Twin Cay, where six Haitian men were spotted waving for help.

Bahamian Police Superintendent Macktavaus Daniels said the men told his officers they had been aboard a boat that overturned nearby. U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force were soon deployed. A defense force crew reached the boat in shallow waters early Tuesday.

Strong winds may have played a role in the boat’s capsizing after running up a bank. A marine forecast for the central Bahamas warned boaters to remain in port Monday “due to hazardous seas and ... dangerous rip currents.” A small-craft advisory was in effect, with wind gusts reaching gale-force levels and waves swelling above 12 feet.

Coast Guard stations in Miami Beach and Clearwater as well as the Royal Bahamas Defense Force airdropped food, supplies and life rafts.

It was the second time in recent weeks that the Coast Guard had responded to a fatal boating incident involving Haitian migrants.

Four Haitian women died when the 25-foot fishing boat in which they were being smuggled capsized seven miles off Miami Beach on Oct. 16. Several non-Haitians have been charged in that case, including murder charges against the boat’s Bahamian captain and his Jamaican assistant.

Authorities have noticed an increase in the number of smuggler-operated boats bringing undocumented migrants from countries other than Cuba to South Florida in the past three years.

Meanwhile, Bahamian officials say 1,550 Haitian migrants have been received or intercepted by authorities in the Bahamas this year, already surpassing last year’s total of 1,477.

Haiti has been rocked by political uncertainty over delayed legislative and local elections, and a rising cost of living.

An anti-government protest last week against President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe was one of the largest to date, with more than 5,000 protesters in Port-au-Prince demanding Martelly’s resignation. Police shut down an equally vociferous protest in Cap-Haitian by using tear gas on protesters. Another protest is planned for Friday.

Many smuggling voyages toward South Florida originate in the Bahamas, carrying migrants from as far away as Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. Some of the migrants also start out in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, making their way to the Bahamas to board smuggling boats for the final leg to Florida.

In some cases, small boats overloaded with migrants begin their trips in Haiti. That was the case in the fatal voyage that ended Oct. 16 off Miami’s Government Cut. The boat carried 15 migrants, some of whom started in the northwestern Haitian coastal city of Port-de-Paix, one of the survivors told the Herald.

The survivor said the smugglers had promised to transfer the migrants to a larger boat in the Bahamas, but that never happened. The boat did stop in the Bahamas, but only to pick up more migrants, according to an affidavit filed in Miami federal court.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Evan S. Benn contributed to this report.