At least 28 Haitians drowned in waters near the island of Abaco in the Bahamas after the vessel carrying them sank, possibly hitting a reef.
The Royal Bahamas Defense Force said they were alerted about the tragedy on Saturday after bodies were found floating in the water. So far, there are 17 survivors, and the search-and-rescue operation remains ongoing, Royal Bahamas Defense Force spokesman Jonathan Rolle told the Miami Herald.
Haiti’s Foreign Minister Edmond Bocchit called the Bahamas boat tragedy, “really heartbreaking.”
“They are our brothers and sisters who are seeking a better life and then they are met with this horrible death. It is really sad,” he said. He added that other government officials were equally saddened.
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In a tweet, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti said Sunday, “no journey is worth risking lives — please urge families and communities. Illegal migrant & smuggling operations are dangerous and frequently end in tragedy.”
A video circulating on social media of some of the rescued migrants show one of the migrants saying that the boat left from Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti with 45 people on board. The video’s authenticity was verified by a Defense Force commodore.
But Bahamas immigration officials said there may have been as many as 87 aboard.
Information coming into the Bahamas Department of Immigration suggests that the boat may have hit a reef late Friday six miles off the coast of mainland Abaco in the northern Bahamas, and subsequently sank.
A special inquiry into the recent deaths is expected to take place on Abaco within the week, and Bahamas Immigration Director Clarence A. Russell along with a team is expected to travel to Abaco on Monday.
The Royal Bahamas Defense Force said the tragedy was discovered after residents reported finding four bodies in the waters near the entrance of Marsh Harbour in Abaco.
A search involving local authorities, Bahamian Defense Force divers and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was immediately launched with the help of local divers.
Fifteen Haitians were soon found on a cay and taken aboard a Defense Force ship. They were then taken to a clinic in Marsh Harbour for evaluation and later handed over to Bahamian immigration and police for further investigation.
That same afternoon, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted the submerged vessel on the sea-bed in the reef-filled waters near Fowl Cay. There, local and Royal Bahamas Defense Force divers found more lifeless bodies.
Initially reported to be 16, the Defense Force in its latest update on Sunday revised the number and said a total of 13 corpses were retrieved Saturday.
On Sunday, 15 more bodies were found inside the same sunken vessel, and the two additional survivors on Fish Hawk Cay.
For years, makeshift boats coming from Haiti have been known to be overcrowded and in poor condition, and capsizing after hitting a reef. In November 2014, at least 30 Haitians died, most from starvation, and 111 were rescued when their 40-foot overcrowded sailboat capsized in Bahamian waters. Migrants spent four food-less days before being discovered.
The latest tragedy comes as the local Haitian currency, the gourde, continues its precipitous devaluation against the U.S. dollar, inflation rises to 15 percent in Haiti, and an ongoing fuel shortage continues while the government recorded an $89.6 million budget deficit in the first few months of this year.
The country’s deteriorating economic reality means that basic commodities like rice and flour are increasingly out of the reach for many Haitians, even those with jobs, and the population is increasingly becoming desperate. In the past two weeks, for instance, the nearby Turks and Caicos Islands, located 90 miles off of Haiti’s northern coast, reported several Haitian boat landings.
Last month, there were several interceptions of rickety Haitian sailboats — known as sloops — in the Bahamian waters.
‘Thus far for [this year], approximately 300 Haitians have been apprehended by the RBDF for illegal entry during four separate incidents,” the Royal Bahamas Defense Force said Saturday. “The Haitian nationals have all been charged before the courts and ordered repatriated to Haiti.”
The Support Group for Refugees and Returnees (GARR), a Haitian nongovernmental organization that works with returning migrants, said it was worried about the increasing number of Haitian nationals risking their lives in search of a better life. The situation, GARR said, reflected Haiti’s harsh socio-economic reality.
“We deplore the situation that has happened where 28 people have lost their lives,” GARR’s spokeswoman Geralda Sainville told the Herald from Port-au-Prince. “A lot of people are looking to leave the country, and a lot of them are doing it under bad conditions. ... There is a lot of desolation; the people don’t believe that they can live in their own country anymore.”
Sainville says that unless Haitian government officials truly work to ameliorate the situation, she fears things will get worse in Haiti, where last week the country’s Superior Court of Auditors issued a preliminary corruption report on how millions of dollars from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil program was misspent by subsequent governments over the years. Government auditors analyzed 40 projects, many of them intended to rebuild the country after its devastating 2010 earthquake.
“The situation is increasingly difficult, and this makes us afraid, with protests being announced, problems repeating themselves and the corruption report that was released,” Sainville said. “A lot of money that could have helped people was misspent.”
Bocchit acknowledged that while the government needs to continue to make it clear that such clandestine voyages are dangerous, “we also have to continue to work harder to create opportunities for those fellow citizens so they won’t risk their lives.” President Jovenel Moïse, he said, has met on several occasions with his economic team to address the devaluation of the gourde.
“We need to create more opportunities through more foreign investments in those very promising areas of the country,” Bocchit said, adding that Haiti also needs to strengthen its national production so that it is less dependent on foreign imports and can increase exports to earn more foreign income.