At least 18 Haitians have died off the Turks and Caicos islands after a sailboat carrying more than 50 suspected immigrants capsized while being towed into port, officials said.

Thirty-two Haitians were pulled from the waters on Wednesday morning about 100 metres off Providenciales, an island in the Turks and Caicos islands north of Haiti in the Caribbean, according to the US Coast Guard.

The government said in a written statement on Wednesday that the survivors were being held in a Turks and Caicos immigration detention and removal centre.

"Police are still searching for the handful of people who reached shore and fled the scene, and their investigations into the incident continue," the statement said.

Turks and Caicos police intercepted the boat about 0800 GMT on Christmas day, according to a statement on the governor's office Facebook page. It capsized about two hours later as authorities towed the boat into port.

"Police are still searching for the handful of people who reached shore and fled the scene, and their investigations into the incident continue," the statement said.

The US Coast Guard deployed two helicopters to the scene after local authorities requested help, US Coast Guard Petty Officer Sabrina Laberbesque said.

Two fast-response vessels from Florida Coast Guard bases were also dispatched.

Dozens of Haitians have died in similar accidents in recent years, as many seek to escape an island still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

In November, at least 30 Haitian migrants drowned when their overloaded boat capsized off the southern Bahamas.

Eleven Haitian migrants died in June 2012 when a boat carrying 28 people from the Bahamas to Florida sank.

Source: Reuters