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RBDF: Migrant traffic increasing

Haitian migrant apprehensions in Bahamian territory are up significantly this year compared to previous years, according to Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) Commodore Dr. Raymond King, who believes this is a result of increased numbers of Haitians fleeing their poverty-stricken homeland where political and social unrest has risen sharply in recent months.

King said yesterday that 2,250 migrants  – the majority of whom were Haitian – were apprehended in Bahamian waters so far this year.

According to RBDF data, 342 migrants were apprehended in 2019, 249 in 2020 and 1,644 in 2021.

King said he expects 2022 to be a record year for migrant apprehensions.

“Conditions are worsening, so those are push factors for Haitians to seek a better way of life,” King told The Nassau Guardian.

“They are not only targeting The Bahamas. They are targeting the Turks and Caicos. They are targeting Puerto Rico, Jamaica as well as the Dominican Republic.”

United States (US) Customs and Border Protection data shows that nearly 50,000 Haitian migrants were encountered at US boundaries in 2021, and nearly 40,000 in 2022 through the end of June, according to NBC.

Haiti has been plagued with political instability for many years. However, those issues were exacerbated by the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021.

In recent weeks, violence has destabilized the country as gang leaders, who are reportedly backed by politicians, indiscriminately killed civilians, bulldozed homes and torched buildings. 

The situation in Haiti has pushed more Haitians to risk their lives at sea with the hope of finding a better life.

Perhaps this is why, according to King, officials are noticing new trends of irregular immigration from the area.

He said vessels historically left from the northern coast of Haiti en route to The Bahamas.

But they now leave with increased frequency from the southern coast, which was hit by a deadly earthquake last year, according to King.

Human smugglers are using larger vessels, said the commodore while comparing the size of one to the mail boats, which can hold roughly 500 people.

“We’ve also disrupted trending with the Haitians now using sailing currents to hide their operations,” King said.

“They would come along the eastern seaboard of The Bahamas and try and target Eleuthera and Abaco.

“And so, we have different routes. Primarily, now, they’re headed toward Florida, but we intercepted a vessel a few weeks ago … there are still those one or two that continue to target The Bahamas if they feel we would have relaxed our posture.

“So, they’re leaving from non-traditional ports and engaging different routes, different size vessels with carrying capacities that are extremely larger.”

King said there are people who are of Haitian origin who attempt to leave The Bahamas to go to Florida.

He said other individuals, particularly from South America and Central America, come to The Bahamas as visitors and move to Bimini or Grand Bahama before their visas expire.

King said they are then stashed in safe houses before they try to “make it into the Florida Strait” while some Haitians attempt to depart from the Sand Trap, which is just west of Arawak Cay, or Jaws Beach, which is in western New Providence.

On July 24, the bodies of 17 Haitians were pulled from waters after the vessel they were on capsized off Nassau, authorities said.

The commodore said the RBDF is taking a multilayered security approach to address illegal immigration.

“We are seeking to intercept those vessels as far in the southern Bahamas as possible,” King said.

“We are using all of our technology, all of our regional partnerships, a lot of national resources to determine who is in our maritime domain. We are using our vessels at sea along with the police marine unit working closely with the United States Coast Guard vessels.”

These strategies have been so effective that no migrant vessel has landed in The Bahamas, he  said.