Haitians Are Dying at Sea Trying to Reach the US

Many Haitian immigrants take increasing risks in their efforts to find better opportunities in this country.

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In this handout image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, approximately 100 Haitians await rescue on the hull of a 40-foot sail freighter after it grounded and capsized, Nov. 26, 2013, in the Caribbean Sea.

U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

On Nov. 18, in the nearly 500-mile stretch of the Caribbean that sits between Haiti and the United States mainland, boaters commanding small vessels awoke to a dire marine forecast that predicted “hazardous seas,” “dangerous rip currents” and winds capable of producing 12-foot waves. Small vessels, it said, should not leave harbor.

But for the more than 130 Haitians clustered aboard a 40-foot sailboat that left L’ile de la Tortue earlier in the day, it was already too late.

There was little food, water and no room at all to sit. But most of the people aboard the cramped sailboat had already paid anywhere from $147 to more than $400 and put their faith in a smuggler’s promise. The boat would sail north, away from Haiti toward a different and better life. In the end, at least 30 passengers drowned, starved or somehow died after the ship ran aground in the Bahamas.

The doomed voyage was actually just one of many this year. U.S. Coast Guard officials and their counterparts in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos (click here to see a map of the region) say the number of Haitians attempting to escape their homeland by sea is increasing and costing a growing number of them their lives. The Coast Guard estimates about 4,000 Haitians have fled the island this year, with about half taking new, shorter and often perilous routes to U.S. territory marketed by mercenary and increasingly ruthless human smugglers. More than 400 have been picked up by the Coast Guard attempting to enter the U.S. in the last three months alone. And, in that same period, at least 37 have died.

With a surge in the numbers of Haitians attempting this often deadly trip, the question is, why now?

The answer, according to government officials, community organizers working with refugees and those who follow developments in the island nation may be as far-ranging as the island nation’s troubles are deep. But among those who watch the world’s first black republic closely, some are also pointing a finger directly at the U.S., its first black president and its still-unreformed immigration policy.

"Of course, it's poverty. Of course, it's the after-effects of a devastating earthquake," said Steve Forester, the U.S.-based immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. "Conditions are what they are in Haiti. But without question, the Obama administration has failed to provide one measure of relief, to release some of the pressure on that island that at this point could save lives."

Haiti’s Struggles Continue

In January 2010, Haiti was already struggling from just over two centuries of alternating world neglect and interference, unmanageable levels of international debt, domestic corruption and environmental decay. Then, a magnitude-seven earthquake shook the island, maiming and killing at least 600,000. Some of the country’s most important buildings, including at least 50 health care facilities, collapsed.

About 1.3 million people were also left homeless (pdf). And within months, United Nations peacekeepers sent to Haiti introduced a cholera epidemic that killed an estimated 8,000 Haitians and infected nearly 650,000.

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