US Coast Guard rescues 176 Haitians from sailboat near Florida

Haitian nationals were on board a crowded, ‘unseaworthy’ vessel headed towards the coast of Florida, Coast Guard says.

Haitian man with river water up to his neck carrying a small child
Haitian migration towards the United States has been on the rise as the island nation battles poverty, violence and political instability [File: AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

The United States Coast Guard pulled 176 Haitians from an overloaded, unseaworthy boat as it approached the coast of Florida, officials said late on Monday, amid a sharp rise in Haitians fleeing the crisis-stricken Caribbean nation.

The rescue effort unfolded on Monday, after US border and marine officials spotted the 18-metre (60-foot) vessel some 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of the Bahamas, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

“It is extremely dangerous to navigate the Florida Straits in an unseaworthy vessel, especially off the Florida Keys where the water is extra treacherous with shoals and reefs,” said Chief Warrant Officer James Kinney.

“Thanks to the quick coordination among so many different agencies, no lives were lost during this interdiction.”

Crews worked with federal, state and local law enforcement officers to take the people into custody, after providing personal flotation devices to those on the boat, which did not have basic life-saving equipment or navigation lights, officials said.

Ten people were taken to hospital with symptoms of dehydration.

The rescue comes amid a marked increase in migration from Haiti, which has been hit by a series of crises in recent months, including an increase in gang-linked violence and kidnappings in the aftermath of the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

In August, Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people and destroyed homes in the country’s southwest.

The country also has been suffering from crippling fuel shortages that began in October after a coalition of gangs blocked access to fuel terminals, forcing some businesses and hospitals to partially or completely shut down.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s Senate reconvened on Monday for the first time in a year with only a few legislators present.

The 30-member Senate currently counts only 10 lawmakers because the country failed to hold legislative elections originally scheduled for October 2019. The vote was later postponed several times following Moise’s killing.

Of those 10 Senate members, only about seven showed up on Monday.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry has pledged to hold general elections this year, but he has not provided a specific date – and leading Haitian civil society figures have criticised the push to hold elections while the country remains in the grips of widespread violence and instability.

US Coast Guard statistics show that during the past three months, it has returned 557 Haitians – up sharply from last fiscal year, when 1,527 Haitians had been rescued by year’s end.

The agency said 418 Haitians were rescued in 2020.

In September, nearly 15,000 Haitians gathered under an international bridge in southern Texas near the US-Mexico border, hoping to claim asylum in the US. But the Biden administration expelled the vast majority of them.

According to the International Organization on Migration (IOM), the United Nation’s migration agency, the US expelled more than 12,000 Haitians between September 19 and December 31 of last year.

As the US continues to expel most Haitians under a pandemic-era rule that allows border officials to quickly turn back migrants without processing their asylum claims, many have been trapped in Mexico.

Last month, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) recorded a more than seven-fold increase in the number of Haitians claiming asylum in Mexico, from 5,935 claims for all of 2020, to 47,494 between January and November 2021.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies