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As the number of people fleeing Haiti for the U.S. spikes, so are related tragedies


The Coast Guard is responding today to a suspected migrant smuggling operation off the coast of Puerto Rico. Five people are dead. Dozens were rescued, many believed to be from Haiti. It's the second fatal incident involving Haitian migrants this week. On Sunday, an overloaded speedboat capsized off the Bahamas. Seventeen people died, all Haitian nationals. They're part of the largest surge of migrants coming to the U.S. from Haiti by sea in nearly 30 years. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Some parts of the Bahamas are less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida. That's long made it a popular route for smugglers, including those bringing migrants from Haiti. Migrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars. A large sum of cash was also recovered from the capsized speedboat. Royal Bahamas Police Commissioner Clayton Fernander says the boat's captain faces homicide charges.


CLAYTON FERNANDER: We did a background check. And he was charged for human smuggling in the U.S. and was convicted and spent two years.

ALLEN: Fernander says the captain, who he didn't name, also spent eight years in prison in Cuba for drug trafficking. In recent months, the U.S. has seen a spike in the number of migrants coming by sea from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Coast Guard in Miami says it's responding to one or two migrant vessels every week.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

ALLEN: In April, the Coast Guard intercepted this small sailboat with 78 people aboard. As is the case with nearly all Haitians picked up by the U.S. at sea, they were repatriated, sent home a few days later. Hansel Pintos with the Coast Guard's Miami district says the service's main concern is preserving life at sea. The Florida Straits between Haiti and Florida can be treacherous, he says, especially for people in overloaded boats dependent on ruthless smugglers.

HANSEL PINTOS: In May, the Coast Guard rescued 38 survivors, and they recovered 11 deceased people in a search and rescue mission that lasted four days. And that was near Puerto Rico. Their vessel capsized, and they left them out to sea, to their own devices, you know?

ALLEN: Tessa Petit with the Florida Immigrant Coalition says it's obvious why so many Haitians are risking their lives on these voyages. Because of gang violence and political instability, Haiti has become very dangerous. She cites a recent U.N. report.

TESSA PETIT: From July 8 to July 17, 417 people were either killed or reported missing from gang violence. That is more people than the death toll in the Ukraine war.

ALLEN: Gangs have taken over large sections of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Haiti hasn't had a president for more than a year. And the economy is nearing collapse. Petit, who was born and raised in Haiti, says she's never seen conditions this bad. Those with resources, she says, are leaving the country by plane to connect with family members abroad. Migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard and sent back to Haiti, she says, will try again. Petit quotes a saying often heard on the island.

PETIT: Death in Haiti is guaranteed, but if I go on boat, I may make it. They have actually hope. By getting on that boat and heading towards another country, they have more hope than staying in Haiti.

ALLEN: Petit says unlike migrants from Cuba and Venezuela, few Haitians are given the opportunity to apply for asylum. One reason is that, unlike Haiti, those two countries don't have deportation agreements with the U.S. Historically, she says, Haitian migrants have received harsher treatment than other groups.

PETIT: It's not a question of playing the color cards. The facts show it that Haitians have systematically been treated differently than other migrants.

ALLEN: Petit and other Haitian advocates have been pushing for the end of pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42. That public health order allows immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants without allowing them to seek asylum. The Biden administration moved to end it, but a federal judge ruled it must stay in place for now. At the same time, officials don't want to adopt any policies that may encourage more migrants to make the perilous trip by sea. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "SIDE BY CLACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.

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