An overloaded sailboat carrying more than 150 migrants was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies Thursday morning off Boca Chita Key, a small Upper Florida Keys island located in South Miami-Dade County.
By late afternoon, the Coast Guard said in a statement that it had begun loading the people onto cutters to be returned to their “country of origin,” which is believed to be Haiti.
Petty Officer Nicole Groll, Coast Guard District 7 spokeswoman, said that after the boat grounded off Boca Chita, situated within Biscayne National Park, all of its passengers remained on the vessel.
“Everyone is on the boat. No one is in the water,” Groll told the Miami Herald.
The Coast Guard would not confirm by Thursday afternoon that the people are from Haiti, but their vessel is almost identical to the several wooden sailing freighters Haitian migrants have been using to reach South Florida since November.
Several regional agencies responded, including Miami-Dade County police and fire rescue, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations, Groll said.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue medics took at least five people from the boat to local hospitals, Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Estrada, another spokesman for the service, said. That number includes three adults and two children, Estrada said. Their conditions and reasons for needing hospitalization were not immediately clear.
This is the first Haitian boat to have made it this far since March, when a group of around 130 people landed off Summerland Key in the Lower Florida Keys.
Others have tried to make it to the Keys but have been turned back off the coast of Haiti by the U.S. and Haitian coast guards. Since October, more than 6,100 Haitians have been stopped at sea trying to reach the United States, according to the Coast Guard.
It’s the largest maritime exodus from Haiti in two decades.
In May, a Florida-bound boat ferrying more than 800 Haitian migrants ran aground in Cuban waters after being forced to turn back due to engine trouble soon after entering U.S. territorial waters, according to the relative of one of the passengers on board.
The latest migrant arrival off the Florida Keys comes as the security situation in Haiti continues to spiral out of control. The United Nations last week expressed concerns about ongoing violence in the Cite Soleil slum in the capital by rival gangs. The violence, according to the U.N., has left at least 99 people dead and more than 130 people injured.
The bloody siege erupted earlier this month and left tens of thousands of people inside the slum of 300,000 trapped without food and water, and exacerbated fuel shortages and power outages in the country after gangs blocked entrance to the port.
Prior to expressing its concerns about the spiraling violence, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution renewing the mandate of its U.N. political office in Haiti.
The resolution called on countries such as the United States to stop the transfer of weapons and ammunition to the country where police have been outgunned by gangs, and recent videos show gangs executing people on film.
Since September, more than 24,000 Haitians have been quickly expelled after either crossing the U.S. southern border or being intercepted at sea.
More than 1,400 who came by boat have been processed into the U.S. after either making it to land or jumping into the water.
Until now, Haitians caught at sea trying to get into the U.S. via the Florida Keys or the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have been returned to Haiti, even if found in U.S. territorial waters.
Last July, after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and the freedom uprising in Cuba, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned Cubans and Haitians not to try and enter the United States illegally by sea.
“Any migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States,” Mayorkas said during a press conference.
Haitian community activist Marleine Bastien said she and her organization, Family Action Network Movement, are shocked, but not surprised, to see the overcrowded boat of dozens of Haitian brothers and sisters “trying to make it to the land of the free.”
“It is heartbroken to see them risking their lives to get here because their motherland is at war, with thousands fleeing their homes daily to escape the massacres, daily kidnappings, gang rapes and murder,” she said. “No one is protected, no one is safe with no fuel, no food, no access to medical care for the wounded.“
Bastien noted the decision to repatriate Haitians is happening as the State Department cautions U.S. citizens against traveling to Haiti because it is too dangerous.
“It is criminal and inhumane to deport these men, women and children who have gone through so much to get here. The Biden administration must respect their basic rights of due process and allow them to stay,” she added. “The State Department must quell the flow of heavy weapons to Haiti, help bring security, and open a dialogue with the civil society and the leaders in the diaspora to find a solution to this crisis. The failed policies of the past will not work. It is time to heed the voices of the Haitian people and not those of the corrupt elite and de facto leaders.”
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