A wooden boat carrying hundreds of Haitian migrants capsized in shallow water off the coast of the US state of Florida, officials said, and many needed medical attention.
The United States Coast Guard and other agencies rushed on Sunday to help the group of migrants, which included women and children. Border Patrol officials said human smuggling is suspected and an investigation is ongoing.
“Multiple agencies responded quickly & worked closely to protect a lot of lives today,” US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jason Neiman said in a tweet.
Approximately 300 migrants were aboard the boat, Border Protection Chief Patrol Agent Walter N Slosar said, and 163 people swam to the shore. Many of the migrants, he said, were in need of medical attention. Coast guard images showed the boat tilted on its side and a large group of Haitians draped in towels on the shore.
The development comes amid worsening political and economic conditions in Haiti in the aftermath of the assassination of President Jovenel Moise last July. The situation has the potential to deteriorate even further amid a political deadlock over elections.
Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s term in office ended on February 7, but no new election date has yet been set – setting off a legitimacy crisis and compounding the Caribbean nation’s economic troubles.
Meanwhile, armed gangs have expanded their grip on the country, causing a spike in violence and insecurity.
Haiti is reeling from a host of other crises. In 2010, it was rocked by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that killed an estimated 360,000 people. The powerful earthquake devastated much of the country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Amid persistent insecurity and political instability, Haiti has struggled to rebuild.
A growing number of Haitians have been fleeing the country in search of safety and work. Many have headed towards the United States and countries in Latin America. Most Haitians try to cross into the US by land through the US-Mexico border, but others have been taking to the sea.
Last month, the Dominican Republic began constructing a border wall to keep out migrants and tackle smuggling.
In January, an unseaworthy boat carrying 176 Haitians was stopped by US border officials near the coast in Florida. Later that same month, 38 people were reported missing after their boat capsized off the same coast. Those on board were believed to be Haitians.
But the US continues to expel the majority of migrants – including Haitians – under a coronavirus pandemic rule that allows border officials to quickly turn back migrants to their country of origin, or to Mexico, without processing their asylum claims.
In September last year, some 15,000 Haitian migrants gathered in south Texas hoping to claim asylum. But US authorities cleared out the makeshift camp and sent the vast majority back to Haiti aboard deportation flights.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES