The number of Haitians who have tried to migrate by unofficial channels to neighboring countries by boat has increased dramatically in 2021. They are being driven by economic hardship, insecurity, and a recent earthquake, to seek what they believe will be a better life.
“I was trying to reach the Turks and Caicos Islands, but my boat capsized at sea. If there were opportunities to start up my own business, I would stay in Haiti.”
The story of ‘Jacques’ (not his real name), a 32-year-old father from Limonade on Haiti’s northern coast is perhaps typical of the increasing numbers of people who try to leave the Caribbean country in unofficial ways and without proper documentation.
Many travel on overloaded and unseaworthy boats hoping to make it to neighboring countries like the Turks and Caicos Islands and The Bahamas. From there, some attempt to continue on to the United States.
The true scope of the number of people who are leaving Haiti is difficult to precisely calculate: however, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that the Haitian Coast Guard intercepted at least 224 migrants at sea in 2020 and 605 in 2021.
And in October 2021 some 1,194 migrants, mainly men who were trying to reach Miami in the U.S. state of Florida, were repatriated to Haiti. They had come ashore after their boat ran out of fuel and experienced engine problems in the south of Cuba, where they were arrested by the authorities.
“An increasing number of migrants from Haiti are making the perilous journey by sea in the hope of reaching another country,” according to the IOM’s Project Officer for migrants’ assistance, Claire Gaulin.
“They are motivated by a number of factors, including insecurity, the lack of jobs and other opportunities at home. In some cases, people have left because their property or livelihood was destroyed by the earthquake which hit the south-west of the country in August. They all have one thing in common,” she adds. “They are searching for a better future for themselves and their family.”
IOM’s goal is not to prevent migrants from leaving Haiti by boat or other means, but rather to promote safe, orderly, and what is known as “regular migration”, for those wanting to leave.
The migrants who are intercepted at sea or repatriated from other countries are the lucky ones. Many do not survive the trip; the IOM says that “the loss of life of passengers on board is frequent.”
Migrants who travel by boat, rather than by air, are frequently vulnerable people from rural areas. Often, they have to sell their possessions or borrow money from loan sharks with high repayment charges to pay the cost of the crossing, which averages around $350 – $700 depending on the type of boat and destination, but can be as high as $7,000.
Once they are back in Haiti, the IOM, with the support of its partners, provides migrants with a series of services to ease them back into life at home. Migrants are given food and water upon arrival, and medical, psychological, and legal assistance is available.
They also receive a small amount of money to cover their safe journey home, and can access information using a dedicated IOM telephone hotline: many migrants do not fully understand the risks they face when they attempt a sea-crossing, so the IOM has focused on building awareness amongst those tempted to try.
Many migrants say that they do not intend to leave Haiti forever, but will return once they have been able to save money or send it home as remittances to improve the living conditions of their families.
“To prevent migrants from risking their lives, it is fundamental to provide them with job opportunities in Haiti and ensure that living conditions and access to basic services are improved,” says Claire Gaulin.
UN agencies in Haiti are working alongside the IOM to provide a whole range of services including education, health and social protection as well as creating decent jobs that will encourage people to remain at home.
Back in Limonade, ‘Jacques’ is still recovering after his attempted migration in January. He’s unable to sleep at night because of an injury he sustained when the boat capsized, preferring to spend the money he received from IOM on sending his son to school rather than treating the injury, lamenting that if he was in better health “I would be able to search for opportunities and build my life back up again.”