Haiti: scores of boat people drowned

At least 61 Haitian migrants drowned after their boat capsized as it was being towed by a police vessel near the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory about 125 miles north of Haiti, in the early morning of May 4. Officials said about 160 people were crowded on to the 25-30-foot Haitian sloop and that 78 were rescued; about 30 people are missing and presumed dead.

The Turks and Caicos government initially kept the 78 survivors locked up in a detention center and barred them from talking to reporters. At first local Turks and Caicos officials reported that police agents didn’t arrive on the scene until after the migrants’ boat had capsized. But on May 8 Gov. Richard Tauwhare acknowledged that the incident occurred as the sailboat was being towed by a police vessel in rough seas. The survivors, who met with Haitian National Migration Office general director Jeanne Bernard Pierre, disputed the Turks and Caicos account. The police rammed the sailboat twice, they said, and then towed it away from the shore, causing it to capsize. Pierre told reporters on May 8 that the Haitian government would consider ramming the boat a “criminal act.”

“When they hit us the first time, water rushed into the boat and everybody screamed,” Dona Daniel told reporters after the survivors were flown back to Cap-Haitien on May 10. The patrol boat threw them a line, Daniel said. “[W]e thought they were bringing us to shore, but they took us further out to sea.” The boat capsized because the police “pulled too hard,” according to survivor Marcelin Charles. Survivors said some migrants tried to pull themselves aboard the police vessel but were beaten back with wooden batons; others were run over by the patrol boat, they said. According to Haitian media, some survivors indicated that the US Coast Guard was also involved in the incident. (Haiti Support Committee News Briefs, May 10 from AP; Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatries et Refugies-GARR press release, May 10; AP, May 11 via Haiti Support Group; AlterPresse, May 11)

Turks and Caicos Islands, which has about 33,000 residents, has opened an investigation with help from London. Many Haitians reportedly migrate to the islands without permission, paying about $400 for a two-day journey by boat. Haitians get jobs as construction workers, janitors, landscapers and bellhops. Dozens of Haitian migrants drowned in a 1998 incident when Turks and Caicos police allegedly opened fire on more than 100 migrants crowded into a boat, which then capsized. Officials said the police fired warning shots and didn’t hit the migrants or the boat. (Guardian, UK, May 12 from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 13

See our last post on Haiti.