MIAMI — The U.S. Coast Guard returned 223 U.S.-bound migrants back to Haiti and Cuba on Tuesday after detaining eight migrant boats at sea during the Memorial Day weekend.
The vessels were stopped between Friday afternoon and Sunday off the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and Haiti as U.S. authorities report the largest exodus of Haitian boat refugees since 2004 and of Cuban “balseros” since 2016.
The worrying surge of Haitians and Cubans trying to get to the U.S. is expected to be discussed next week when hemispheric leaders meet in Los Angeles on June 6 during the Summit of the Americas. The event is being hosted by the U.S. for the first time since it was launched in Miami in 1994
The largest group of migrants detained during the weekend were stopped Saturday when a “grossly overloaded” 35-foot sailing vessel carrying 124 Haitians was detected 17 miles northwest of Cap du Môle, Haiti, the Coast Guard said Tuesday in a news release. Crews provided them with life jackets at the scene before taking them into custody.
The Coast Guard did not say when exactly the sailboat was found. The interdiction of the boat came four days after 842 Florida-bound Haitian migrants ran aground in Cuban waters when their large cargo vessel began taking on water. The Coast Guard had been following the boat ever since it left Île de la Tortue, or Tortuga Island, off Haiti’s northwest coast.
The first group of Cubans detained over the long weekend was rescued at 4:30 p.m. Friday after their boat overturned 53 miles southwest of Key West.
A day later, two “rustic” vessels carrying Cubans were spotted off the Keys. The first one was found 22 miles south of Long Key at 10 a.m. and the second 35 miles south of Marathon at 11:15 a.m.
And on Sunday, three additional “rustic vessels” from Cuba were detected in the afternoon; the first two were found off the Keys. One was noticed seven miles south of Key West at 2 p.m., and a second 15 miles south of Tavernier, the Coast Guard said. The third was discovered 20 miles southwest of Cay Sal, Bahamas at 5 p.m.
The migrants were all taken aboard Coast Guard cutters, where they received food, water, shelter and basic medical attention, the agency said. The Coast Guard attributes the interdiction to its stepped-up enforcement in the waters off the Haitian coast and the Florida Straits as well as the Mona Passage separating Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“The Coast Guard and our partners have increased air and surface patrols in the Florida Straits, Windward and Mona Passages,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Jose Hernandez of the Coast Guard Seventh District said in the release. “These waterways are dangerous, unpredictable and the risk for loss of life is great.”
The Coast Guard tallies the number of migrants detained by fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30 of the following year. Since Oct. 1 of last year, Coast Guard crews have stopped 5,390 Haitians compared to:
— 1,527 Haitian migrants in Fiscal Year 2021
— 418 Haitian migrants in Fiscal Year 2020
— 932 Haitian migrants in Fiscal Year 2019
— 609 Haitian migrants in Fiscal Year 2018
— 419 Haitian migrants in Fiscal Year 2017
While the Coast Guard says it has detained 5,390 Haitians at sea since Oct. 1, that amount doesn’t take into account the cargo ship carrying the 842 Haitians that ran aground last week in Cuban waters, stopping before it could reach its intended destination — the Florida Keys.
The communist newspaper Granma reported that among those detained by Cuban authorities were toddlers and babies.
If the boat had arrived anywhere near the South Florida mainland, it would have been by far the largest migrant landing by people from Haiti to date.
And since Oct. 1, Coast Guard crews have detained over 2,000 Cubans compared to:
— 838 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2021
— 49 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2020
— 313 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2019
— 259 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2018
— 1,468 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2017
— 5,396 Cuban migrants in Fiscal Year 2016
Miami Herald journalist Jacqueline Charles and Florida Keys staff writer David Goodhue contributed to this report.
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