The U.S. Coast Guard is releasing an ad in English and Creole begging Haitians not to attempt to illegally immigrate by boat after dozens of recent deaths and a spike in voyages across the rough waters between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
"Some will tell you that being smuggled is safe. ... They are wrong," say Haitians in the ad. "Do not go to the sea."
Haitians, along with other Caribbean migrants, routinely try to reach Florida in unseaworthy or overloaded vessels through the Bahamian archipelago.
This year, there's been an unusually large number of Haitians crossing their border with the Dominican Republic to board boats bound for Puerto Rico, said Capt. Mark Fedor, chief of Coast Guard law enforcement throughout the Caribbean.
From February through November, more than 2,260 Haitians have tried to reach Puerto Rico, Fedor said Thursday. Over the previous eight years, only 188 Haitians attempted the same journey.
"This route is fraught with danger and it's organized by criminal networks," Fedor said.
Haiti continues to struggle in its recovery from a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and decades of other natural disasters, extreme poverty and political insecurity, but its government is targeting the country's most impoverished areas with new social programs and there's nothing to explain the increasing numbers of migrants on the seas, said Francois Guillaume, Haiti's consul general in Miami.
"Conditions are not worse off — they are bad, but they are not worse than they were last year," he said.
The capsizing of overloaded vessels is not uncommon. Four Haitian women died off Miami in October, dozens of Haitians were lost last month when a sailboat carrying 250 people ran aground in the Bahamas, and there also have been fatal incidents near the Turks and Caicos Islands and in the Mona Passage off Puerto Rico.
The Coast Guard estimates that several hundred Haitians die each year attempting the crossings, "but we just don't know, and that may be the saddest part of this," Fedor said.
The ad will air in South Florida, where a large Haitian-American community regularly sends money to relatives at home, sometimes funding the ill-advised voyages.
The U.S. State Department also will distribute the ad for radio and television in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries, Coast Guard officials said.