“If the sea could talk…” says Haitian activist and entrepreneur Ganine Avin in a video of Haitian online media platform Ayibopost, “she would have too much to say.”
For decades, Haitian migrants have tempted fate, embarking on makeshift and unstable vessels, pieced together with materials that barely float, or overloaded ships without food and water for perilous journeys over unpredictable seas, where hundreds have lost their lives in an attempt to flee their island country.
“We met people who were said to be crazy, but they experienced too many things,” says Avin, a septuagenarian, in her native Creole. “They were losing their minds. You had people who were traveling with three small children and all drowned except them. These people live with worry, fear, and remorse.”
The history of Haitian migration goes back to the early 20th century, with several waves between the 1960s and 1980s — first to escape the regime of François Duvalier (Papa Doc, who ruled the country through fear, murder, and black magic), and then that of his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc. At the turn of the 21st century, many more Haitians sought refuge elsewhere.
Today, the attempted voyages by sea continue, yet with a recent and worrisome uptick.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) latest available data (as of May 16), since October 1, 2021, which marks the beginning of the fiscal year, USCG crews have rescued more than 4,500 Haitians at sea, compared to 1,527 during fiscal year 2021, and 418 in fiscal year 2020. This is the busiest the naval institution has been since 2004.
“The Coast Guard’s main mission is search and rescue, so when we get out here, that’s our main concern,” USCG Lieutenant Katrina Prout told a Fox News journalist, during an early May reconnaissance flight over the Caribbean Sea. Once aboard a USCG cutter, all rescued Haitians receive food, water, and basic medical care.
Some 200 Haitians are believed to have died this year as their boat took on water, overturned, or sank, or as they fell overboard and drowned— and this number only takes into account vessels that had been reported to the USCG as missing or capsized.
“Taking to the sea is always risky,” USCG Lieutenant Commander Jason Neiman, District 7 Public Affairs officer said in mid-April, after crews helped rescue more than 100 Haitians from a sinking vessel southwest of Andros Island in The Bahamas. “The risk for loss of life is great on these unsafe vessels,” USCG Lieutenant Connor Ives, District 7 Enforcement officer, for his part said, following an early April mission.
Survivors can attest to the horrors of the trip.
“The shock of the travel by boat… every moment spent on the boat affects the mind,” Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian psychologist, said to Ayibopost. “You’re in the ship, someone isn’t feeling well, and they fall overboard. It’s a shock. A child dies. A woman dies. People you were close to did not arrive…”
On May 16, following five days of patrols covering more than 15,500 square kilometers of water — an area larger than Puerto Rico — the USCG suspended its search for possible survivors after an overloaded vessel overturned near the Caribbean island’s western coast. At least 11 people, all women and Haitian citizens, are believed to have perished.
“Our most heartfelt condolences to the families, friends, and loved ones of those who did not survive or remain missing; our prayers are with them,” said USCG Captain Gregory H. Magee, commander of Coast Guard Sector San Juan.
In late April, according to survivors of a failed voyage, nine babies less than a year old died along the way, their bodies ordered thrown overboard by the captain of the ship. “Sharks devoured the corpses as their mothers watched in horror and let out piercing screams,” Haitian news site Rezo Nòdwès reported.
“This trip was the worst thing that’s happened to me,” a survivor told Puerto Rico’s newspaper El Nuevo Diario. “It’s something that I’ll never be able to forget.”
With hurricane season coming up, many are hoping Haitians will avoid the voyage.
“The GARR advises migrants against any uncertain journey that puts their lives and those of their loved ones at risk,” the Haitian grassroot human rights group based in Port-au-Prince said via Facebook.
“To anyone thinking of taking part of an illegal voyage, don’t take to the sea! It could just save your life,” Cmdr. Magee said.