Migrant smugglers are marooning large groups of Haitians and others on small, uninhabited islands between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, raising concerns about the safety of defenseless migrants at the mercy of human smugglers.
The latest incident came on November 15 when the US Coast Guard rescued 12 Haitian migrants who had been left stranded on Monito Cay, a tiny uninhabited island off the larger Mona Island in Puerto Rico.
This was but one of several such rescues in the Mona Passage, a 130-kilometer strait separating the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, in recent months.
In October, Puerto Rican authorities found a group of over 100 migrants stranded on Mona Island, the largest island in the passage, and alerted US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), according to a news release from the agency.
The group included at least 64 Haitians, deceived and abandoned on the island with no resources, CBP said.
These voyages often turn deadly. In July, five Haitians were found dead in the water near Mona Island, and another 66 Haitians were found abandoned on the island, according to a press release from the US Coast Guard. In May, 11 people drowned when their boat capsized as they moved through the channel, Reuters reported.
Deaths and instances of abandonment may well rise as the number of migrants desperate to leave Haiti increases. Between October 2021 and September 2022, 444 Haitians were taken into custody by the US Coast Guard in the Mona Passage, compared to only 55 in the previous six years combined. An additional 929 Haitians were apprehended in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands by Border Patrol during the same period, an increase from only 22 in FY2020 and 310 in FY2021, according to numbers provided to InSight Crime by CBP.
InSight Crime Analysis
Haiti's economic and political crisis has pushed many of the country's citizens to attempt dangerous migratory journeys, providing human smugglers with ample opportunities to take advantage.
Abandoning migrants in the passage is a calculated strategy by human smugglers, according to Chief Border Patrol Agent Michael Estrada of the US Border Patrol’s Ramey Sector. “Historically, smugglers abandon migrants on smaller outer islands such as Mona, Monito, or Desecheo Islands in an effort to avoid detection and minimize the likelihood of being apprehended and facing any type of legal consequence,” he told InSight Crime.
These smugglers are not acting alone but as part of larger groups. “We are dealing with transnational criminal organizations [TCOs] who have a presence both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and whose network expands as far as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Continental United States. However, due to the close proximity, our biggest threat comes from the Dominican Republic,” said Estrada.
The risk of crossing the Mona Passage goes beyond the threat of abandonment or deception by smuggling networks. The passage, dubbed “Canal de la Muerte” (“The Death Channel”) by journalist Jorge Ramos, has a reputation for vicious conditions and is especially dangerous to cross in small makeshift boats. Historically, the passage has been traveled by Dominican migrants, but periodic spikes of Haitians have also been seen. In 2013, over 2,200 Haitian migrants were apprehended by the US Coast Guard while making the journey through the passage.