As Haiti's crisis worsens, a rising number flee by sea
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - There was nothing but darkness around them. Darkness and desperation.
"We are lost," the captain told four dozen men, women and children squeezed tightly together on a flimsy wooden boat somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. "There is no hope."
Jeff Pierre thought of the 2-year-old son he left back in Haiti. He imagined what it would be like for the boy to grow up without a father and started crying.
It had been four days since the boat set sail from Jérémie, a coastal city near the tip of Haiti's southern peninsula, in late September. All those aboard had managed to scrounge together $250 for the trip to the United States - a small fortune in a country where a majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Frustrated by Haiti's rising gang violence, political turmoil and dire economy, they'd decided to take the ultimate risk: embarking on a perilous journey by sea that has claimed the lives of an untold number of migrants.
"I said to myself, 'I need to leave,'" Pierre said. "This country does not offer me anything."
Though much attention has been paid to the swell of Haitians who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in September, another, less visible spike in migration has been taking place by sea as the nation's humanitarian and political crisis deepens.
As of October, the U.S. Coast Guard had intercepted over 1,500 Haitians at sea in the previous 12 months - three times the number seen in 2020 and the highest on record in at least five years. Officers have found vessels carrying upward of 200 people on precarious boats en route to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the United States. Hundreds have been caught after reaching islands in the Caribbean, where watchdog groups have reported migrants are being held in inhumane conditions before being deported.
The massive flight of Haitians by sea, air and land has now begun to have regional implications around the Caribbean and Latin America, prompting several nations to impose new, strict requirements for migrants and to expedite deportations. As the Haitians' options narrow, advocates say they're opting for riskier journeys.
"This is not stopping," said Giuseppe Loprete, the International Organization for Migration chief of mission in Haiti. "We will see migrants going in one direction or another, as the situation here will not get any better anytime soon."
As the Haitians who departed from Jérémie drifted in the middle of the Caribbean, water began to leak onto the boat. Women started to cry. A man chanted a Christian prayer and soon others joined in. Together, they tried to scoop out the water spilling onto the boat with plastic bottles.
Haitians have been migrating by land and sea since the earliest days of the nation, fleeing political turmoil and searching for opportunity. Hundreds of thousands escaped the brutal rule of the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986 and again after the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. After a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, leaving more than 220,000 dead, thousands more resettled in South America, where many found stable jobs and housing.
Now a twofold migration has emerged: Thousands are fleeing from South American nations such as Chile amid a steep economic downturn, tougher visa requirements and a belief that the United States has grown more welcoming to immigrants under President Joe Biden. In September, 17,638 Haitians were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, after many of them huddled in a squalid camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, creating a humanitarian and political crisis for the Biden administration. Those numbers have since declined. Meanwhile, many still in Haiti are looking to escape the nation's recent tumult.
In July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in the middle of the night. A month later, an earthquake took the lives of at least 2,189 people and damaged or destroyed 137,000 homes. Powerful gangs routinely block ports and hold up trucks in the capital at will, causing paralyzing fuel shortages. Men, women and children are taken hostage by gangs and ask families for ransom. Some are killed if their families do not pay. The country now has the highest per capita kidnapping rate on Earth.
All of these factors have pushed Haitians to set out on kanntè - a Creole word used to describe the act of leaving Haiti by boat to illegally enter other countries, most commonly the United States.
Evens Louis Jeune, a 44-year-old fisherman from Jérémie, said he decided in September that he'd had enough. Fuel shortages had grounded already scarce work to a halt. With five children to feed, he decided he'd use the boat he usually works to transport cement and salt for something else: trying to reach the United States.
"The country is in a catastrophic situation," he said. "That convinced me I had to leave."
Quietly, he began spreading the word in Jérémie, a metropolis known as the "city of poets" that is still recovering from the most recent quake. Fallen brick and concrete from destroyed buildings litter many streets three months later. The main bridge that connects the city to the rest of the country is on the brink of collapse.
About 50 Haitians managed to raise 25,000 gourdes - about $250 - for a spot on his battered wooden boat, parts of which were rotting. Some sold their belongings. Others negotiated payment plans or asked for loans - routine practices to survive in Haiti, the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean region.
Pierre, an electrician, learned about the trip when he saw Jeune buying water and fuel at a local shop. The 31-year-old man had been struggling to support his son, mother and partner by selling clothes. In recent months, it had become impossible to travel to Port-au-Prince to buy merchandise to sell or look for work. Armed gangs controlled some of the highways and entry points to the capital, making the six-hour journey a risky gamble.
"You can't even eat," he said. "My only option was to leave."
As he prepared for the journey, he tried explaining to his son why he was going, unsure if they'd see each other again.
"Your father is leaving Haiti, seeking a better life for us," he said, caressing the boy's face.
Most Haitians fleeing by sea are using makeshift vessels - some built with their own hands - that are by and large unequipped to navigate bad weather and rough currents. They typically carry little or no lifesaving equipment onboard.
The captains follow maritime routes that have been used for decades: Sailing north to the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos, or east toward Puerto Rico, stopping points on the journey to the United States and sometimes permanent destinations in and of themselves. Others try to reach Florida directly, a journey that can take about six days if all goes according to plan.
The boats often sail through treacherous channels such as the Mona Passage, which lies between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and is filled with tidal currents and sand banks, making it one of the most dangerous straits in the Caribbean.
The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted a rising number of Haitians in recent years. The more than 1,500 found at sea while patrolling the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas over the last year represent a marked increased from 2020, when 418 were located - a number considered especially low because of the pandemic. As a result, the Coast Guard has increased the number of crews patrolling by air and sea, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez said.
"Navigating the Florida Straits or the Mona passages, especially in unseaworthy vessels, which most of these are, can be extremely dangerous and usually can result in the loss of lives," Hernandez said.
The migrants from Jérémie set out on a warm September morning. Trouble surfaced almost immediately.
The boat's rudder broke just a few hours into the journey as they sailed through the Windward Passage, a strait between Cuba and Haiti known for its rough currents, forcing them to navigate using only the boat's two electric motors. Four people who were on the boat recounted the journey to The Washington Post.
With no electronic navigational system or GPS devices, the captain relied on the moon, the clouds and the stars to guide them to Cuba, several passengers recalled. For survival and hope, the migrants depended on each other, sharing food, candy and water. Most were strangers to each other but found fellowship in shared desperation and uncertainty.
"Inside the boat, we lived as brothers," Pierre said.
About eight hours later, the boat approached a beach in eastern Cuba. Dozens of locals waved and welcomed them, offering food and water. They also gave them nails and tools to fix the boat.
While sharing a cigarette with the strangers on the beach, Pierre mentioned it was his birthday. The locals brought a gallon of hot milk as a gift to mark the occasion.
The next morning, Pierre took a rock from the beach in Cuba and put it in his pocket. He wanted to take a souvenir from a land that was "filled with good people," he said. The migrants then crowded back onto the boat, hoping they'd reach Florida next.
Two days later, they were adrift and lost in the Caribbean.
Across the region, Haitians are finding it increasingly difficult to migrate legally by foot or plane, making a trip by sea one of the few ways left to leave.
In the Dominican Republic, which shares a land border with Haiti, authorities have begun conducting raids and arbitrary detentions of people suspected to be in the country illegally. The government has also announced measures to restrict migration, including a policy that bans those who are visibly pregnant from entering the country, unless they have international medical insurance. Last month, officials vowed to deport undocumented Haitian workers if business owners fail to prove they have legal working permits.
Haiti's ambassador in Santo Domingo has condemned the detentions and deportations, saying some have violated basic human rights and long-standing bilateral migration agreements.
In Guyana, a transit point for many on their way to Brazil and other South American countries, the government implemented a new visa requirement for Haitians in June, saying it was needed to crack down on a "well-organized human smuggling ring." Previously, Haitians were able to enter and stay in the country for six months.
Turks and Caicos, an archipelago that lies 137 miles from Haiti's northern coast, has also become a popular steppingstone for those looking to reach the United States. In April, authorities intercepted 308 Haitians in two boats off West Harbor Bluff, prompting the government to warn they would deport all those intercepted at sea and ban them from applying for work permits.
The increasingly restrictive immigration controls have left migrants with fewer formal channels for migration, analysts say.
"This has pushed people to come up with other alternatives, paying smugglers, getting on dangerous boat trips and putting people at greater risk and vulnerability," said Bridget Wooding, director of the Center for Migration Observation and Social Development in the Caribbean, a Santo Domingo-based think tank that studies migration flows in the region.
Many of the sea voyages are organized by smugglers and criminal networks that exploit vulnerable people and seize on misinformation and fake news, said migrant advocates and government officials in the region.
"Many of these people don't have money to eat tomorrow, but out of desperation, they will invest $250 to go on a boat that a few days later will get intercepted," said Loprete of the International Organization for Migration. "But even if they are often returned the next day, people will still go because they have nothing else to hope for."
As water kept leaking into the boat, the captain told the group they had to make a choice that could determine whether they lived or died: either they continued going straight, aimless and unsure if they would find land, or turn around to Cuba and look for help.
Pierre saw a look of devastation on the faces of those around him.
Despite his own fears, he and another passenger urged the captain to continue to go straight. The rest of the passengers, however, wanted to go back to Cuba.
The captain turned the boat around.
A few hours later, the frightened passengers noticed beaming lights from afar. From the look of the land, some thought they had reached Florida and sighed with relief. But as they slowly approached the military port, a big sign appeared that read "Bahamas."
Members of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force pointed guns at the stunned group and took them all into custody, several onboard the boat recounted. Some broke down in tears.
Pierre spent almost a week in a detention center in the Bahamas along with hundreds of other Haitians, where he and three others said they were beaten by migration officers and deprived of food and water for days before being flown back to Haiti.
Clint Watson, a spokesperson for the prime minister's office, told The Post in a statement that the Bahamian government was "unaware of any reports of Haitian migrants being mistreated while in custody."
The small nation has grappled with a recent influx of up to five boats a week - an "unusually high number" not seen since pre-pandemic times, Watson said in an interview. At one point in September, there were more than 1,000 Haitians held in Inagua - the southernmost district of the Bahamas, he said, which prompted tensions and concerns among residents who say the island is not prepared to handle such large numbers of migrants.
"These boats come laden down with people, they don't use modern navigational devices or electric motors," Watson said. "We want to reiterate to the people coming that the voyage is dangerous and it is not worth it, waters are very deep and it can become very rough if weather is not good."
In June, authorities spotted an overturned boat several miles off Grand Bahama. When they arrived at the site, they found nine Haitians clinging to the boat. Among them was a baby. They also found a man and a women dead under the capsized boat in what officials suspect was a smuggling operation to reach the United States, according to local news reports.
After ramped-up interceptions and repatriation efforts, the number of Haitians intercepted at sea has greatly subsided in recent weeks, Watson added.
Haitians are also being found near Puerto Rico after setting sail from the Dominican Republic‚ where some are paying boat captains thousands of dollars for a seat aboard a yola, a small vessel typically used for human smuggling.
Back in Haiti, life for Pierre, Jeune and the other migrants who set sail only to be caught and deported back has only gotten harder.
"I am back to zero now," said Jeune, who lost his boat and nets during the trip and is now back in Jérémie, working on other fishermen's boats as a helper.
But the experience has not dissuaded him from trying again. He is planning to join another kanntè leaving in December. His 16-year-old son plans to go with him so they can both work in the United States, he said, adding that most of those who left with him want to keep trying to reach Florida.
Those who do reach the United States have little chance of qualifying for asylum, despite the growing violence and instability. Scores are being expeditiously deported under Title 42, a public health law that has been used to return thousands of migrants since the start of the pandemic.
Although the Biden administration extended temporary protected status for Haitians until 2023, the protection only applies to those who are already living in the United States.
Pierre, who said he spent all the money he had on the failed trip, is now working as a carpenter and an electrician, struggling to take care of his family.
"I have no country because there is nothing for me here," Pierre said. "If I hear of another trip by boat tonight, I am leaving Haiti."