A group of Florida-bound migrants, including almost 50 children, who reached the Florida Keys in a rickety sailboat from Haiti on Monday, resulting in a frantic federal, state and local rescue effort, have been returned to the Caribbean nation.
The U.S. Coast Guard said a cutter arrived in Haiti on Friday with the migrants on board.
The 190 individuals — 89 men, 55 women and 46 children — were returned to Haiti aboard the cutter Escanaba, the Coast Guard said Friday afternoon. Ten people in the group remained on the ship for further interviews with federal authorities.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Nicole Groll said it was not immediately known how many, if any, of the children were unaccompanied. They ranged in ages “from infant to teenager,” Groll told the Miami Herald.
The Coast Guard said there were roughly 200 people on the cutter. They were among the Haitians who traveled on a dilapidated wooden sailboat that the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection crews first encountered Monday morning about 30 miles off Rodriguez Key near Key Largo. The boat had entered U.S. territorial waters overnight and had become disabled at sea. Federal crews rescued about 100 passengers, including babies.
News of the repatriation has been met with anger by Haitian and immigration activists who say that given the worsening humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti, where a deadly cholera outbreak has been confirmed, it makes no sense to return people.
“This is obscene,” said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La Neighborhood Center in North Miami. “At this point and time, the United States has been talking about how the Dominican Republic should not be repatriating Haitians; how they are looking for solutions because Haiti has a hellish situation going on, and now you want to return people?
“We are not going to forget this,” she added. “Under these circumstances, when 13-year-olds are being raped and the world is talking about the circumstances in Haiti and you want to repatriate Haitians now? I don’t know if it’s the White House or the State Department that is driving this decision. But whichever it is, we’ve got some obscene people in positions of power that they are abusing.”
Metellus said with so many children on board the boat, it is obvious their families were attempting to save them. At the very least, she said, the migrants, including the kids, “should be allowed to stay and be provided humanitarian protections at the very least until the situation in Haiti is a bit clearer. If it were anybody else, they would have been allowed to stay, but not Haitians.”
The Coast Guard took the majority of the Haitians off the vessel in stormy conditions, but the boat proceeded to sail southwest with other migrants on board before eventually beaching on a sandbar just off Windley Key in the Village of Islamorada early Monday evening.
When that happened, about 20 men jumped overboard, creating a chaotic, hourslong search under near pitch-black skies, and fast-moving murky water. Multiple federal agencies engaged in the search, including the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“These people were packed into an overloaded, unsafe vessel without safety equipment,” Lt. C. Box, with Coast Guard District 7, said in a statement. “The weather was so bad, these people are lucky we got to them when we did.”
Within a couple of hours, 18 men were pulled from the water and placed in Border Patrol custody.
Authorities thought all of the migrants were accounted for. But on Thursday, the body of a man dressed in gym shorts and a shirt was found floating about 150 yards off Windley Key.
No agency had confirmed by Friday evening if the man, who had no identification, was part of the Haitian migrant group. It was also unclear if the 18 Haitians plucked from the water were onboard the cutter, or if they remained in the United States.