US Coast Guard says 38 missing after boat capsizes off Florida

Search mission launched after survivor said he was one of a group of migrants who left Bahamas on Saturday.

A US Coast Guard ship sails in the sea off Miami with skyscrapers in the background
The US Coast Guard ship Bernard C. Webber, leaves the Coast Guard base on Monday, July 19, 2021, in Miami Beach, Florida. The US Coast Guard is searching for 39 people after a good Samaritan rescued a man clinging to a boat off the coast of Florida. [Marta Lavandier/AP Photo]

Rescuers from the United States Coast Guard have found one body in their search for 39 people reported missing after their boat, believed to be used for human smuggling, capsized off Florida’s coast.

A good Samaritan alerted the Coast Guard early on Tuesday after rescuing a man clinging to the mostly submerged hull of the boat after it hit bad weather about 72km (45 miles) east of the town of Fort Pierce, the maritime security agency reported on Twitter.

The survivor told authorities that he had left the Bahamas’ Bimini islands with 39 other people on Saturday night, and that they had not been wearing lifejackets, the Coast Guard added.

Captain Jo-Ann F Burdian told a news conference on Wednesday that finding the other migrants alive is their highest priority.

“It is dire. The longer they remain in the water … exposed to the marine environment … with every moment that passes, it becomes much more dire and more unlikely” that survivors will be found, she said.

Cutter vessels and aircrafts have been deployed to search an area stretching from Bimini to Fort Pierce to find the missing.

A man clings onto the hull of a capsized boat in the sea between Florida and Miami
A man was found on the hull of a capsized boat off the Florida coast. He told the Coast Guard he was one of a group of 40 who left the Bahamas on Saturday [US Coast Guard via Reuters]

The incident comes amid an uptick in migration headed to the US by both land and sea fueled by rising poverty and political instability in Central America and the Caribbean.

Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a stepping stone to reach the US, with the Bimini Islands only about 80km (50 miles) east of Miami, Florida.

Smugglers typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. There have been thousands of deaths over the years.

The latest accident follows another ill-fated crossing last week when the authorities rescued 32 people whose boat capsized west of Bimini, Coast Guard spokesperson, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez told the Reuters news agency.

Most of those attempting the crossing come from Haiti and Cuba.

Amid intense political pressure from Republican leaders, the administration of President Joe Biden has been imposing restrictive immigration policies along its borders. The vast majority of migrants are expelled under a pandemic-era rule that denies them the right to apply for asylum.

At least 557 Cuban migrants in all have been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard since October, according to the agency.

Crossings by Haitians have also grown more frequent as the Caribbean island nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings.

Earlier this month, the Coast Guard said it rescued 176 Haitian nationals from an overloaded sailboat near Florida.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies