Seven more survivors of capsized boat rescued near Puerto Rico

The US Coast Guard has found an additional seven survivors from the capsizing of a vessel carrying Haitian migrants near Puerto Rico, a coastguard spokesperson said on Friday, taking the total number of survivors to 38 with the death toll remaining at 11.

The vessel, which was first spotted on Thursday north of Desecheo Island, an uninhabited island in the archipelago of Puerto Rico, the US territory, was carrying mostly Haitian migrants as well as two citizens of the Dominican Republic, a spokesman said.

“Of these survivors, eight remain hospitalized,” the spokesman told Reuters. “Search efforts continue.”

The coastguard on Thursday had reported 31 survivors.

Migrants, particularly from Haiti, have in recent months been attempting to escape gang violence and poverty through dangerous voyages on unseaworthy vessels, with a string of tragic losses at sea.

The capsizing comes less than a week after the US coast guard and Dominican navy last Saturday rescued 68 people in the Mona Passage, a treacherous area in the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

US authorities say they have detained twice the number of migrants in and around US jurisdictions in the Caribbean in the past year compared with a year earlier. Observers point to Haiti’s political instability, coupled with brutal gang violence and a crumbling economy, that have prompted more people to flee.

“We’ve seen our Haitian numbers explode,” Scott Garrett, acting chief patrol agent for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Puerto Rico, told the Associated Press.

Garrett said it was unclear exactly how many migrants had been aboard the boat but said survivors had provided authorities with their own estimates. “The numbers we’re hearing are somewhere between 60 and 75,” he said.

Rescue efforts began on Thursday after a CBP helicopter saw people clinging to the capsized boat. Crews worked through the night and search continued Friday, with the coastguard scouring the open waters northwest of Puerto Rico via boat, plane and helicopter.

Authorities released images showing people desperately holding on to the boat in open waters as they awaited rescue. Once ashore, survivors 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.

Tom Homan, who was acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) during much of the Trump administration, said the migrants in the latest incident may have gotten lost, taking them farther from the US mainland, or they may have been trying to reach Puerto Rico, a US territory where they can attempt to seek asylum. Both scenarios are common.

Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, said he expected the trips to continue despite 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 had increased 180% and homicides were 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 7 July assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse. The UN said last week that civilians were being burned alive and that children as young as 10 were being gang-raped.

Haiti also has been hit with double-digit inflation, severe gas shortages and gang violence that has shut hundreds of schools and businesses and prompted some hospitals and clinics to temporarily close. 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,” Esperance said.