Christmas Day turned tragic when a boat carrying Haitian migrants capsized off the Turks and Caicos Islands. Seventeen of the more than 50 passengers were killed, while some fled and are still being sought.
This is just the latest in a growing spate of Haitian disasters on the Caribbean. Last month 30 Haitians drowned in a similar incident off the Bahamas.
More Haitians are suddenly attempting to escape their country's grinding poverty, the western hemisphere's worst. Since fiscal year 2014 began in October, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted more than 420 Haitian migrants at sea. That puts fiscal 2014 on pace to record the highest annual number in almost a decade.
Places like the Turks and Caicos, a British territory about 100 miles north of Haiti, are also seeing a spike in Haitians migrating illegally to their shores. In Wednesday's incident, Turks and Caicos maritime police intercepted a badly overloaded sailboat in the pre-dawn hours. Government spokesman Neil Smith said that as the sloop was being towed to the western island of Providenciales, panic struck.
“About 5:17 am the people onboard rushed to one side of their vessel," Smith said. "The authorities managed to rescue 33 of them, and unfortunately 17 of them drowned in the incident.”
A handful of others escaped to shore. The U.S. Coast Guard says its boats and helicopters were also called in to assist in the rescue and recovery. Turks and Caicos officials are now interviewing the survivors to determine if smugglers were responsible for the perilous voyage.
“The police will question them to obtain intelligence and a better understanding of how to tackle future instances that bit much better," said Smith. "I don’t know if people believe that the authorities have their senses lowered over the holiday period.”
Concern is rising in the Caribbean and the United States. Smith said governments like his are intent about sitting down with Haitian officials to find ways to discourage illegal migration.
“It’s an issue that needs to be tackled," he said. "And indeed the authorities here, the politicians here, have already had bilateral talks with the Haitian authorities to look at both preventing future occurrences and dealing with them. And there are a number of things such as education programs and different things that are planned to take place.”
Meanwhile, Caribbean authorities have also called off a search for six Cuban migrants reported lost at sea last week.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.