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More Special Reports
|Posted Saturday, May 19, 2007|
|New Routes and Risk to Flee Haiti|
By MARC LACEY
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos, May 16 There is no conceivable way to get from this island to Miami by bus. But the traffickers who ply Haitis northern coastline in search of those willing to risk their bleak lives for better ones abroad tell some tall tales to fill their rickety boats.
They describe this island chain, 150 miles off Haitis northern coast, as being an easy hop to Miami, the ultimate goal of most migrating Haitians. Sometimes they tell migrants from Haitis interior that the United States is a bus ride away as they talk of the big paychecks and full stomachs that await them.
The reality is different, of course, as was made clear when an overloaded Haitian sloop capsized off the coast of Turks and Caicos recently. As many as 90 migrants may have died in that episode, which passengers on the vessel blamed on the aggressive tactics of the local police.
They were part of a swelling number of Haitians abandoning their country this year, apparently disillusioned with the slow pace of change coming from Haitis year-old government. But with patrols along the Florida coastline making it increasingly difficult to land there, desperate Haitians are island hopping, as the United States Coast Guard calls it, looking for alternative routes and badly straining relations with their neighbors.
Turks and Caicos is hop No. 1, and it is not altogether happy about it. Local Haitians charge that authorities efforts to combat illegal migrants have become so aggressive that they believe accusations that a police boat may have caused the capsizing of the Haitian vessel on May 4, despite official denials.
Haitians now make up a huge percentage of the population here, exceeding the number of other residents, according to government estimates. With migrant boats landing regularly, authorities here and across the Caribbean are struggling to contain them.
Its a tremendous strain on the government, and wed appreciate international assistance, said Lee Penn, who runs the detention center for illegal migrants in Providenciales, the financial capital of Turks and Caicos. Were feeding them and housing them and repatriating them and its costing us.
What exactly happened at sea on May 4 remains uncertain, and is still under investigation by maritime authorities from Britain, which administers the territory.
But it is clear that the voyage was hellish. After a day and a half packed together in a tiny craft, with nothing but water all around, the migrants finally saw lights on the horizon as they approached Turks and Caicos. Excitement grew, and then dreams turned to nightmares.
With a police boat on the scene in rough waters, the Haitian boat went over on its side. Screams filled the air and bodies hit the water. In all, 61 dead Haitians were plucked from the sea, some of them with shark bites. Twenty or so others were never found.
The closest thing I could compare it to was Katrina, with that many people floating in the water, said Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Arko, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who responded to the scene and who had done search-and-rescue work over post-hurricane New Orleans.
Of the 69 men and nine women who survived, none would succeed in escaping their desperate lives back home. All were flown back to Cap Haitien, a city on Haitis northern coast and a major departure point for migrants.
Inspector Hilton Duncan of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force said it was a fierce storm, not the police, that forced the Haitian sloop to capsize. He acknowledged that the crowded boat was being towed to shore by the police when it went over. Immediately, he said, a rescue effort ensued, involving the police, other government boats, good Samaritans and the Coast Guard.
For five officers on a boat, at that time of morning, with that type of weather, rescuing 78 people ought to bring a commendation, said Inspector Duncan. But people dont see it that way.
But before they were returned home, the surviving Haitian migrants charged that the Turks and Caicos police boat had not responded to their capsized vessel, as the police originally said.
The migrants charged that the police had rammed them in the rough waters and that the overloaded sloop went over when it was being hauled farther out to sea by the police boat.
We fell into the water and many people drowned, Marcelin Charles, 37, one of the passengers, told The Associated Press. I was swimming past dead bodies left and right.
The tragedy focused attention on the growing exodus of Haitians in recent months and the increasing enforcement efforts to thwart them. In April alone, the United States Coast Guard picked up 704 Haitians at sea, almost as many as the 769 migrants interdicted during all of last year.
President René Préval took office last May amid high expectations that he would end a long bout of violence and economic stagnation. But reversing course has proved challenging: after a spike in kidnappings at the end of 2006 that terrorized residents of Port-au-Prince, Haitis capital, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti has only recently begun to make headway in controlling the insecurity there. Meanwhile, hunger and joblessness linger.
The Haitian migrants follow the wind to the Bahamas, to Bermuda, or here in Turks and Caicos, any place that might offer a way to make a living or might take them closer to the United States.
It is a pattern similar to that of other Caribbean migrants. Cubans, for instance, are trying alternative routes to escape that island. The emerging route: west to the Mexican coast and then overland to the United States border.
But Haitians have it harder than others. They are not allowed to stay if they reach American soil, like the Cubans. They are not granted temporary protected status while their countries recover from war and natural disasters, like those who have fled Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
And if they make it ashore on Turks and Caicos, their efforts at escape have just begun.
Immigration agents are on the lookout for illegal Haitians throughout the eight inhabited islands that make up Turks and Caicos, demanding proof of legal residency from everyone they stop.
Were a small country, and if these people are continuing to come, it causes problems for us, Mr. Penn said. Weve become a stepping stone.
Residents here speak of the need to maintain their identity. A British territory, the islands have a governor appointed by Queen Elizabeth as well as a local premier. One government survey estimated the population at 33,000, only a third of whom are longtime residents. Haitians make up the bulk of the foreigners.
In recent months, immigration agents in search of illegal Haitians have waited outside Haitian churches on the island to grab parishioners without papers. In one case, they barged inside All Saints Baptist Church and took five migrants out. Legal Haitians who hire or house a migrant or even allow one into their homes face legal jeopardy, local Haitians say.
Residents recall that back in 1998 another boatload of escaping Haitians died off the shore here, after the police fired at the boat. Authorities say they were firing warning shots and did not cause that vessel to capsize.
Were still human and ought to be treated that way, said James Prosper, a Haitian-born pastor who has lived in Turks and Caicos for 24 years and who complained to the government recently about the rough treatment endured by those caught without papers.
If a Haitian is mistreated, I feel it, because its in my blood, said Ronald Gardiner, a Haitian-born businessman who is now a Belonger, as citizens of Turks and Caicos are called.
On Turks and Caicos, Haitians pick up trash and sweep the streets. They make the hotel beds and pour the concrete.
The tourism industry here is booming, a far cry from the 1990s when a Gallup poll found the islands had the lowest name recognition in the world. Now, Hollywood stars vacation in hidden bungalows. Other well-heeled sun worshipers fly in on tickets that can cost less than the several thousand dollars some Haitians pay to get a spot on a sloop.
The police here say some migrants smuggle drugs and guns, which means every sloop is considered a security threat. In fact, the recent deaths revived a call among local officials to create a defense force to better patrol the surrounding waters.
These are poor people seeking a better life but among them are criminals, Inspector Duncan said in an interview. We believe some of them may be former members of the Tontons Macoute, a reference to the armed thugs who ruled the Haitian countryside during the long years of the Duvalier dictatorships.
The Haitian authorities hope the tragedy may help keep more Haitians home. They are considering using photos of the latest overturned vessel and the resulting bodies thrown into the sea as part of a public education campaign to discourage others from making the trip.
The answer to migration is economic development and, as you know, that wont happen overnight, said Louis Joseph, who is Haitis ambassador to the Bahamas. When you dont have money to eat or to send your children to school, you dont know what to do. So you leave or you try, like these people did.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Saturday, May 19, 2007.
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