At least 17 Haitian migrants have died after the boat on which they were traveling to the United States capsized, highlighting the alarming deficiencies in the operations of human smugglers that offer migrants safe passage.
On July 24, Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis told a press conference that a vessel - most likely a speedboat - had overturned off the coast of the Bahamas with the loss of 17 lives, Reuters reported.
The victims were part of a group of up to 60 Haitians, believed to be on their way to Miami. Bahamian authorities rescued 25 people, though an unknown number of others are still missing. Two Bahamians have been taken into custody over the suspected human smuggling operation.
“We take this opportunity to strongly condemn the organization of smuggling operations, which risks human life and compromises our national security,” the prime minister said.
A similar tragedy occurred near Puerto Rico in May this year, when 11 Haitian migrants died after the vessel they were traveling on capsized.
That same month, a boat bound for the US and carrying 842 Haitians washed ashore along the Cuban coast after straying off course.
Haiti’s turbulent history, misfortune with natural disasters, and humanitarian, security, and political crises have pushed many to search for a better life elsewhere. Furious gang fighting across June and July in the capital, Port-au-Prince, has claimed hundreds of lives and left many thousands more trapped in their homes without access to basic necessities.
Yet it is incredibly difficult for Haitians to leave their homeland. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Haitians require visas for more countries than any other nationality in the Western Hemisphere. For this reason, many opt for unauthorized migration.
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Increasingly, Haitian refugees put their faith in the hands of maritime smuggling networks who prioritize maximizing profits over the safety of human lives.
These networks charge exorbitant sums of money for transport on boats that are typically overcrowded, which can increase the likelihood of deadly accidents.
Survivors of the July 24 tragedy paid between $3,000 and $8,000 each for the journey, Bahamian Immigration Minister Keith Bell said at a press conference. The smugglers, typically loading boats with dozens of people, earn thousands of dollars per trip, regardless of whether the journey is completed successfully.
Migrants are not always aware of the high risks involved in unauthorized migration.
“These criminals make you feel safe. They tell you that in three or four hours you will be in Miami from the Bahamas, that it will be a good boat, they tell you that there are only a few people [on the boat]… that you will have a life jacket. It's all a lie,” Juan Esteban Montoya, a Colombian migrant and sole survivor of an overcrowded boat that capsized on its way from the Bahamas to Florida in January 2022, told Semana.
The Haiti–Bahamas–United States maritime route has likely been in use since the 1970s, and the US Coast Guard has interdicted smuggling vessels carrying Haitians since 1981.
Though US restrictions reduced migrant numbers in years past, the route is now frequently transited once more - a report published in May by MPI found that the US Coast Guard interdicted more Haitians at sea in the first seven months of fiscal year 2022 than during any previous fiscal year since 1994. The 4,400 maritime interdictions accounted for almost 20 percent of Haitians' attempts to enter the United States unauthorized.
The renewed popularity of the sea route is partly caused by a general increase in demand for smuggling services out of Haiti in response to its crises and limited legal options, MPI reported.
For those still in Haiti, the land route via Mexico to the US is often not a viable option. Since March 2020, at least 19,000 Haitians who have tried to cross into the US from Mexico have been sent back to Haiti. In a 2022 survey by the International Organization for Migration, 84 percent of expelled Haitians said they’d try to migrate again. Some of them might turn to maritime routes, MPI concluded.