Mona Passage: Haitian Migrant Route Takes Grim Toll


Rise in departures through perilous Mona Passage lifts death count, as more people try to reach U.S., Arian Campo-Flores writes in this article for The Wall Street Journal.

Haitian migrants are dying at sea in growing numbers as more of them flee the island in rickety boats and, increasingly, brave a new route that is especially perilous.

Dozens of people have perished in recent weeks, including one incident in November when a boat overloaded with Haitians ran aground and broke apart near the Bahamas, killing at least 30. Four years after a catastrophic earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation, poverty, disease and limited opportunity are driving an increasing number of Haitians to the sea.

The emergence of a newly popular but dangerous sailing route is raising the risks for Haitians, officials say. Rather than following the more common path north toward the Bahamas, many Haitians are now traveling by land to the Dominican Republic, with which they share the island of Hispaniola, then heading by sea across the Mona Passage toward Puerto Rico, an American territory. Some then try to fly to the U.S. mainland.

The 80-mile-wide strait is notoriously treacherous, with turbulent currents and large sand banks. Yet migrants are venturing on that route because of beefed-up Coast Guard patrols in the north, less vigilance by Dominican authorities and Puerto Rico’s proximity, officials say.

Haitians also are being enticed by Dominican smuggling groups, who are increasingly targeting the Haitians after a yearslong public-education campaign aimed at dissuading Dominicans from crossing the Mona Passage takes hold, said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University professor and adviser to governments in the region.

Smugglers, who usually charge $1,000 to $2,000 a person, will sometimes leave migrants stranded on one of the islands dotting the Mona Passage. The smugglers “are ruthless,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard’s Seventh District in Miami. “They want to get the run done and collect their money.”

The estimated number of Haitian migrants traversing that treacherous strait reached 1,760 in the year ended Sept. 30, compared with a total of 188 over the previous eight years, Coast Guard figures say.

The number of Haitian migrants heading to the U.S. and elsewhere in the Caribbean by sea jumped to 4,386 in the year that ended Sept. 30, from 2,195 in the year-earlier period, the figures show. The tally in the first four months of this fiscal year— 1,920—suggests the number of departures continues to climb.

The number of Haitians reported dead or missing at sea rose to 76 in calendar 2013, from less than 50 in each of the two previous years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Among them, a freighter intercepted by Turks and Caicos authorities capsized as it was being towed to shore, killing at least 17 more on Dec. 25. Overall, eight migrants have died crossing the Mona channel in the past two months, and “there’s probably a lot of death we don’t know about,” Mr. Fedor said.

In the aftermath of the November deaths, Bahamian and Haitian government officials plan to meet within weeks to discuss how to better share maritime intelligence and crack down on human smugglers, said Pierre-Richard Casimir, the Haitian foreign minister.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard last month released a public-service television ad, in English and Creole, aimed at discouraging Haitians from venturing out by boat. Featuring Haitian community leaders in South Florida and footage of migrants leaping off a capsized vessel, the spot concludes, “Thousands try, hundreds die. Do not take to the sea.” The U.S. State Department says it plans to distribute the ad to Haiti and other Caribbean countries.

Four years after a devastating earthquake, about 147,000 people remain displaced and are living in encampments, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. A cholera epidemic continues to kill and hospitalize people.

A 2011 survey by the organization of potential migrants in northern Haiti, an especially poor region, found that 89% of respondents earned less than $125 a month, only 1% had running water and just 7% had electricity.

The IOM is now proposing a plan that would seek to reduce Haitian migration by helping people start small businesses and underwriting community projects that would create jobs. But it lacks the needed $5 million in funding over the next two years, said Drazan Rozic, a program manager.

Mr. Casimir, the foreign minister, said the government has been trying to spur job growth by attracting foreign investment. An International Monetary Fund official who visited Haiti in November said gross domestic product grew about 4% in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, buoyed by increased textile exports and agricultural production.

“There is to a certain extent a functioning economy where there wasn’t one before,” Mr. Gamarra said. But “the pattern of job creation is just not fast enough.” As a result, the migrant flow will continue, he said.

Roland Vilfort, a Haitian Catholic priest in Nassau in the Bahamas, said he has met with many Haitians in the local detention center who survived their journeys but had been caught and were awaiting repatriation. “They are so discouraged,” he said. “They sold property or a house to come to Nassau. And now they go back empty.”

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