Caribbean Stories From Inside The Reef

Tag: Turks & Caicos

Face-to-Face with Boat People

As predicted in earlier blog in March, the mass exodus of Haitians fleeing chaos did not materialize. While the Turks & Caicos, Bahamas, and South Florida were all on high alert for an armada of boat people about to descend en-mass on the shores, the numbers did not change much if at all. Which calls into question the quality of the information authorities are relying on about Haiti. Do they really understand the situation there with all its nuances? I’m skeptical.

In recent weeks, the steady migrations of people in rickety boats continues to depart from the coast of Northern Haiti at roughly the same pace as before. Indeed, over the past few weeks we have seen interceptions of boats close to the west side of Provo and some making it to the beach, which is more or less “normal.” Not for the first time, a boat recently arrived near the super luxury resort of Amanyara, which, of course, dramatically highlights the stunning contrast of vast wealth coming face-to-face with desperate poverty.

That image of Haitians scrambling off their sloop with nothing but the clothes on their backs onto beach next to where high-end tourists are paying upwards of $15,000 a night for a room reflects an emerging new social reality. And that is that the very rich and the very poor are going to be seeing more of each other and maybe even spending some quality time side by side. How exactly is that going to go over when it becomes clear that it’s not a one-off? Will the very wealthy, upon seeing extreme deprivation and desperation up close, be repelled? Will they want to vacation somewhere else where such unpleasant encounters with the impoverished can be avoided and allow them to properly enjoy their tropical sojourn? Or will the sight be an eye-opener that spurs them to take action, to find a way to lessen the pain of the destitute? The ├╝ber-wealthy can at times be quite empathetic and generous to the unfortunate and thus transformative.

Either way, the harsh reality of the very rich and very poor in close contact–jarring, perhaps for both–is only likely to increase since neither poverty in Haiti nor the opening of luxury accommodations in Turks & Caicos is about to recede anytime soon. The temptation pay $2000 to human traffickers to cross the dangerous 130 miles of ocean in hopes of reaching the shores of a land with the prospect of work is simply too great. Meanwhile, TCI residents–locals and expats–are already living in proximity to poor Haitians, many undocumented and dwelling on the fringe in hidden shantytowns or in the bush with barely a tarp overhead. Nobody knows, but some have suggested that as many as 4000 people fall into that category or around 10% of the entire population of 40,000. Is that something we just get used to, a underclass that becomes a “new-normal?” Or does it create a backlash? My guess is both.

Watch this blog for thoughts on how that will shape the future of these islands and perhaps foreshadow what’s to come in other societies.

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?

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