Haitian migrants are reaching Florida's shores in large numbers as human smuggling operations ramp up, outpacing last year's migration waves.
The rise in the desperate and sometimes deadly voyages on overloaded vessels comes amid deepening political instability, skyrocketing inflation, severe fuel shortages and a spike in gang-related violence and kidnappings in Haiti.
About 140 Haitian migrants came ashore Monday on Summerland Key, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) up the highway from Key West, and Monroe County Sheriff's deputies joined federal agents in processing them.
Earlier this month, a wooden boat carrying hundreds of migrants grounded in shallow water off Key Largo, and 163 people swam ashore near the Ocean Reef Club. Many needed medical treatment, federal officials said.
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Another boat carrying 176 Haitians was stopped in January just off the Florida Keys, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard routinely returns people interdicted at sea to their country of origin. Those arriving in the U.S. generally are taken into custody and face deportation unless they have viable asylum claims.
The United Nations Security Council reported in mid-February that gangs in Haiti have been growing more powerful and seizing more territory, with an under-resourced and understaffed police force struggling to contain them.
“The actions of these armed criminal groups have had a catastrophic impact on the economy of Haiti and threaten the fundamental rights of all Haitian citizens, especially their rights to life, freedom of movement, work, health care and education,” the U.N. report concluded.
Kidnappings in the country of more than 11 million people have increased by 180% and homicides by 17% in the past year, with more than 500 people alone killed between September and December, including 40 women and children as young as 5 years old, according to the report.
In addition, instances of civil unrest jumped by more than 80% as a growing number of Haitians sink deeper into poverty, with inflation reaching the double digits.
Also, many Haitians who have lived overseas for many years in South American countries have been seeking entry via the southern land border into the United States, which sent an estimated 18,000 back to Haiti in recent months.
Another 10,000 Haitians have been deported from neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola, in recent months in a crackdown on migrants. Once back, many of the former expatriates have added to Haiti's unemployment crisis.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is taking the lead in the investigation into the most recent case in the Florida Keys.
The Coast Guard has stopped other Haitian boats navigating near the Bahamas with dozens of migrants. On Sunday, the agency transferred 127 Haitians and three Cuban nationals to Bahamian authorities after picking them up in two locations near Anguilla Cay, Bahamas.
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Coast Guard crews have encountered 1,193 Haitians at sea. That compares with 1,527 Haitian migrants in all of fiscal year 2021, 418 in 2020 and 932 in 2019, the Coast Guard said.
On Feb. 28, crews spotted a Haitian sailboat with 179 people aboard 30 miles (50 kilometers) off Andros Island, Bahamas. Last Friday, the Coast Guard stopped another Haitian sail vessel with 123 people, including 39 minors, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Anguilla Cay, Bahamas.
“The Coast Guard maintains a persistent presence patrolling the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, to help prevent loss of life,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Salomee Briggs said in a news release. “Taking to the sea is very dangerous, we urge you not to risk you and your loved-ones’ lives.”
Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, has pledged to fight violence, boost the economy and help the country recover from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the country's southern region in August, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes. But aid has been slow to arrive given that violent gang clashes have shut down the main road from the capital.
Henry also has promised to hold general elections this year as the country struggles to prosecute those accused in the July 7 slaying of President Jovenel Moïse, with two judges stepping down from the case out of fear for their lives.
The United Nations says more than 16,000 people in Haiti have lost their homes since mid-2021 as a result of gang violence, with many of them staying in temporary government shelters in extremely unhygienic conditions. This as inflation has risen to 19% in recent months.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.