SAN JUAN – Haitians are fleeing in greater numbers to the neighboring Dominican Republic, where they board rickety wooden boats painted sky blue to blend with the ocean to try to reach Puerto Rico — a trip in which 11 Haitian women drowned this week, with dozens of other migrants believed missing.
It was the latest fatal trip as U.S. authorities said they have detained twice the number of migrants in and around U.S. jurisdictions in the Caribbean in the past year compared with a year earlier.
“We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode,” Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press.
Garrett and others say Haiti’s political instability, coupled with brutal gang violence and a crumbling economy, have prompted people to flee, with more doing so via the Dominican Republic. Both countries share the island of Hispaniola, which lies west of Puerto Rico, with a treacherous area known as the Mona Passage separating the two.
In the most recent capsizing, spotted on Thursday, 11 bodies of Haitian women were found and 38 people rescued — 36 of them Haitians and two from the Dominican Republic. Authorities say one of those rescued was charged with human smuggling. The boat capsized about 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of the uninhabited island of Desecheo, west of Puerto Rico. Dozens are believed missing.
Garrett said it’s unclear exactly how many migrants were aboard the boat, but said survivors provided authorities with their own estimates. “The numbers we’re hearing are somewhere between 60 and 75,” he said.
The search continued Friday, with the U.S. Coast Guard scouring the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico via boat, plane and helicopter.
Rescue efforts began on Thursday after a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter saw people clinging to the capsized boat, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad, adding that crews worked through the night.
“We always look for the possibility of finding survivors,” he said.
Authorities released images showing migrants desperately holding onto the boat in open waters as they awaited rescue. Once ashore, the migrants were escorted down a pier, with at least one wearing nothing but underwear. Some were taken to ambulances, and eight Haitians remained hospitalized on Friday.
The trips aboard rickety boats, known as yolas, which Garrett said often have only small motors to avoid detection, have long been the cheapest way for migrants to flee their country despite ongoing warnings about the danger. The smaller motors mean a longer trip, which in turn makes it more dangerous.
He said 30 to 40 migrants are usually on the boats, but those on board said nearly twice that number were on this one.
On Saturday, 68 migrants were rescued in the Mona Passage, and one woman, believed to be from Haiti, died. On May 7, Customs and Border Protection detained 60 Haitian migrants the agency said were smuggled through southwest Puerto Rico. On May 4, another 59 Haitian migrants were detained in northwest Puerto Rico. In late March, officials said they detained more than 120 migrants in three separate maritime smuggling incidents.
From October 2021 to March, 571 Haitians and 252 people from the Dominican Republic were detained in waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Of the Haitians, 348 landed on Puerto Rico’s uninhabited Mona Island and were rescued.
Tom Homan, who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during much of the Trump administration, said the migrants in the latest incident may have gotten lost, taking them farther from the U.S. mainland, or they may have been trying to reach Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where they can attempt to seek asylum. Both scenarios are common.
It's unusual to have so many women on board, he said, referring to the 11 who died.
“These migrants are placing their lives in the hands of people that don’t see them as people,” Garrett said. “They see the migrants as commodities to be traded and to make money off of."
Pierre Espérance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said he expects the trips to continue despite ongoing warnings about the danger.
“It’s more risky for Haitian people to stay in Haiti than to try to leave Haiti to have a better life,” he said.
A United Nations report noted that kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people have increased 180% and homicides are up 17% in the past year. Dozens of people, including women and children, have been killed in recent weeks amid new clashes between gangs fighting over territory as their power grows following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The United Nations said last week that civilians are being burned alive and that children as young as 10 are being gang raped.
Haiti also has been hit with double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that has shuttered hundreds of schools and businesses and prompted some hospitals and clinics to temporarily close. In addition, the Biden administration has deported more than 20,000 Haitians in recent months amid heavy criticism given the country’s downward spiral.
“Even if it’s dangerous to get into a boat, it’s more dangerous for people to stay in Haiti,” Espérance said. “There is no rule of law in Haiti.”
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego, California, contributed.