Caribbean Stories From Inside The Reef

Fleeing Haiti: Challenging Assumptions

Boat ferry heading into village of Labadie in Northern Haiti. Photo by Ben Stubenberg

Just 130 miles (210 km) south of the economically booming high-end tourist destination of Turks & Caicos Islands lies a country on the opposite end of the spectrum: Haiti. That was the name given by the original Taino Indian people who lived there when Columbus made landfall in December 1492. In their language Haiti means land of high mountains. For more than two centuries, TCI and Haiti have been connected by refuge and trade. When Haiti won its freedom in 1803 following the biggest slave revolt in the world since Spartacus fought the Romans, dozens of enslaved people in the TCI would sail boats under the cover of darkness to Northern Haiti. On those shores they could find a welcome and a refuge from oppression, as well as a chance to start a new life in freedom. The escapes, particularly from Grand Turk, became so prevalent that slaveholders of the day had to organize their own private coast guard to try to intercept the sailboats leaving.

220 years later, it is Haitians who are fleeing north to TCI in small sloops to escape poverty, despair and gang violence. The irony of the reverse movement, of course, is not lost. These northward migrations have actually been going on since the 1980s when dictatorial governments imprisoned, tortured or killed people opposing the regimes. Launching under the cover of darkness from beaches in Northern Haiti, these sloops typically carry 100-200 people crammed together sometimes under sail, sometimes with a small outboard motor. Some never make it, capsizing midway and drowning everyone. Nobody has any idea how many. Some almost make it before crashing on the reefs where most of the passengers drown or are eaten by sharks . Some are intercepted by the marine police and repatriated back to Haiti. And some make it to a beach undetected and scramble into the bush before finding their way to hidden communities living off the land or in the back alleys of shanty towns.

For those that make it to TCI, the hope, naturally, is to find work, preferably in construction, but anything that pays hard cash dollars and allows them survive, gain a toehold on the island, and send money back to Haiti. Indeed, for those that make it to TCI, relatives back in Haiti expect and pressure them to send regular wire transfers.

Boat from Haiti abandoned on Provo beach. Photo by Ben Stubenberg

Amidst the increasing chaos, violence and breakdown of order in Port-au-Prince, there is an assumption that more people will flee Haiti in boats and threaten to overwhelm the capacity to stop them as they approach the coast. That perception has been exacerbated by gang led attacks on two main prisons in and near Port-au-Prince that enabled thousands of prisoners to break out. As a result, TCI has put its police and border control on high alert, as have the Bahamas and the US. On the surface, it seems logical that more displaced and desperate people will clamor on to boats to get out. The term “Armada” has even been invoked to suggest TCI will be overwhelmed with boat people fleeing en mass from Haiti. But I challenge this assumption and doubt that will happen.

Here’s why: First, there aren’t that many boats available to simply sail or motor away packed with migrants. Second, ruthless human traffickers demand money, anywhere between $1500 and $2000 to squeeze on board–a hefty amount of cash in Haiti. These traffickers control the business of fleeing Haiti and are not about to offer discounts to escaped prisoners or anyone else who can’t pay. In fact, many of those clamoring for a chance to leave Haiti receive money through remittances wired in from relatives in the US, Canada, or Europe. Anyone who gets that kind of funding and wants to leave doesn’t wait around. Third, TCI has been increasingly effective in detecting boats approaching the coast through radar and drones. While that has not stopped efforts to evade them, there is at least an awareness that the chances of reaching shore without being intercepted are getting smaller. And fourth, the situation outside of Port-au-Prince, particularly in the north, is not nearly as dire. In fact, local authorities have taken it upon themselves to keep their towns relatively peaceful, even with the meager resources they have. People will still continue to pay to take the huge risk of sailing across the sea to TCI. And there may even be a bump in boat launches. But don’t expect an Armada.

Update: With the resignation of Haitian PM Ariel Henry to make way for a transitional council, the situation has calmed somewhat in Port-au-Prince. But the continued lack of security in Port-au-Prince is unlikely to ameliorate the situation for long and could flare up at anytime.

Next Blog: “A Separate Haiti.” Could Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien and Northern Haiti be the new center of power?

1 Comment

  1. Wil Stubenberg

    A fantastic informative blog coming from a well traveled Caribbean expert doesn’t just visits but actually makes it a point to have deep lifelong local connections and who participates in the communities he embraces.

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