Migrant smuggling increases by boat in Bahamas to the US

As the island nation struggles to contain an increase of migrants seeking to reach the United States on frequently decrepit and overloaded boats, patrol watercraft commanded by the Royal Bahamas Defense Force set off each day from a former luxury resort hotel.

The island chain Bimini, which is less than 50 nautical miles from Florida and is best known for its stunning turquoise seas and wealthy vacationers on yachts, is becoming an increasingly attractive hub for human smuggling. A lone survivor was discovered clinging to a capsized yacht transporting him and 39 other migrants from Bimini to Florida in January.

Officials say gang violence, increased poverty, and pandemic-related hardship in Haiti and Latin America have spurred an increase in the number of journeys that pass through Bahamian seas, with boat decks dangerously overcrowded and people crammed into scorching holds below.

As he sailed a boat away from the Coral Harbour base, Chief Petty Officer Onassis Ferguson, who handles maritime patrols, said, “It’s three days sailing time from northern Haiti on a small boat if there’s fair wind.” “They sometimes have little outboard motors.”

Because the ships are so primitive, they are routinely blown off course, Ferguson told reporters on April 20 while pointing to a digital map inside the boat’s cockpit.

Earlier that day, 132 migrants believed to be from Haiti arrived at Coral Harbour after being intercepted in Bahamian waters by the US Coast Guard and handed over to Bahamian officials.

In October, more than 1,000 migrants entered the country, the highest number on record, according to Keith Bell, Minister of Labor and Immigration, who added that the majority were believed to be headed for American shores.

The rise in marine migration comes as the United States experiences record levels of apprehensions at its southern land border, fueling an increasingly contentious discussion over a subject that will almost certainly be a major topic in this year’s legislative elections in the United States.

According to US official data, Coast Guard sailors intercepted 3,519 Haitian migrants between October 1, 2021 and April 17, 2022, more than double the total for the previous fiscal year, which concluded in September 2021.

Only 418 Haitian migrants were apprehended in the fiscal year 2020, and annual numbers have not reached 1,000 since 2017, according to the data.

A request for more specific statistics from the Coast Guard was not responded to.

Since the pandemic began, around two to three thousand migrants have entered the Bahamas each year, according to Bell, the minister, who described the vessels as “totally unseaworthy.”

He described them as “clinging to the sails, clinging to the mast, clinging to the sides of the boat.”

The journeys themselves are not new, though their frequency has grown.

According to Defense Force officers, migrants jammed below deck are frequently stripped down to their underwear to withstand the heat.

Officials in the Bahamas also refer to “mixed nationality” smuggling operations, which involve migrants from Latin America who arrive on valid tourist visas.

According to one Bahamian official who begged not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak about the problem, they then fly to Bimini, where they often check into hotel rooms before departing on night-time travels.

In reference to smugglers, Juan Esteban Montoya, a Colombian and the lone survivor of the crashed boat, said, “Those crooks make you feel comfortable.” “They tell you that you’ll be in Miami in three to four hours… All of that is a fabrication “At a press conference, he stated.

Some of those apprehended at sea are handed over to Bahamas officials before being flown back to Haiti on repatriation planes.

Given the severe situation in their home country, Bahamian migrant rights activists believe the country should do more to assist them in staying in the Bahamas.

“These are folks who have probably spent their last few dollars of savings to go to the Bahamas,” said Joseph Darville of the human rights organization Rights Bahamas. “They’re heading back to a scenario that’s far more sad.”

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