As U.S. immigration authorities continue to fly Haitian migrants from an evacuated camp at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, back to their homeland on deportation flights, Haitian officials have been put on notice to expect more migrants — this time from Cuba, Mexico and the Bahamas.
As many as 10 deportation flights were expected to arrive Friday at the Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien international airports from the U.S., the Bahamas and Mexico, the head of Haiti’s national migration office, Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, told the Miami Herald.
Cuba, which has informed Haitian authorities it has about 1,000 migrants who arrived illegally on the island hoping to get to the United States, has not yet said when it will begin repatriations, Delva said.
The new planeloads are in addition to 50 flights from the U.S. since Sept. 19 that have returned more than 5,400 Haitian nationals as of Monday, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.
“I can tell you today that based on these flights, the situation of the country will become sadder,” Delva said from Cap-Haïtien, where he was awaiting 450 migrants expelled from the Bahamas onboard five Bahamasair charters. “We are supporting the people when they return and the government will have to manage this throughout the territory. But one thing we realize is that the country will become even more impoverished.”
Though Haitians arriving in the Bahamas — where they are being apprehended in the southern part of the archipelago close to Cuba — is not in itself unusual, the situation is worrying countries in the region, coming after the July 7 assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, and the deadly Aug. 14 earthquake, and amid a recent surge of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials and others are also tracking reports that thousands of Haitian migrants are traversing through Latin American nations hoping to get to the U.S.
“The migration issue is a regional challenge,” U.S. National Security Council Director Juan Gonzalez told journalists in Port-au-Prince Friday as he wrapped up an overnight visit to Haiti alongside the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols.
The U.S., Gonzalez said, “is working with Mexico and our partners in the region to advance an immigration system that not just uses enforcement but that also establishes legal pathways, and invests in the root causes of immigration from Haiti.”
Starting Sept. 9, about 30,000 Haitian migrants arrived at the Del Rio port of entry. But it was the recent rush of thousands of migrants over several days that created international headlines and raised concerns about a humanitarian crisis, leading to fresh criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policy.
That criticism only deepened after images and video emerged of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent on horseback charging at Haitian migrants attempting to carry food to the Del Rio camp.
“It was an injustice and it was wrong and I want to apologize to the people of Haiti,” Gonzalez said during Friday’s press conference. “That is not how our border officials or the Department of Homeland Security behaves and… the proud people of Haiti and any migrant deserves to be treated with dignity.”
At its peak, the number of migrants at the camp underneath the international bridge in Del Rio was close to 15,000, leading the Biden administration to announce accelerated deportations. That decision continues to be criticized by Haitian leaders in the diaspora and immigration advocates, who accuse the administration of unfairly targeting Haitian migrants through the use of Title 42. The controversial health law, first invoked by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, allows for the expulsion of migrants without giving them a chance to request asylum.
“That is a public health emergency and we are using Title 42 authorities. These are migration-related authorities to remove not just Haitians to their countries of origin,” Gonzalez said.
Speaking to potential migrants, Gonzalez said: “Don’t risk your life and migrate now. The danger is too great.”
Gonzalez and Nichols raised their Haitian migration concerns in a meeting with Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
Nichols said he thanked Henry for Haiti’s cooperation on the migration crisis but stressed that “the Haitian people deserve safe, legal ways to migrate, but that irregular migration places people’s lives at risk and we need to cooperate to prevent that.”
The two senior officials also met with a number of Haiti’s political and civil society leaders. The main goal, Nichols said, is to support a Haitian-led solution to the problems and challenges that Haiti faces and encourage Haitians “to come together and forge a unified vision for Haiti’s future.”
“The solutions to Haiti’s problems lie with its people and their vision,” Nichols said. “The future of Haiti depends on its own people.”
There are mounting concerns that the arrival of Haitians in the southeast Bahamas and eastern part of Cuba are part of a new human smuggling route. Authorities say migrants from Haiti’s earthquake-ravaged southern region are being targeted by traffickers while migrants themselves are looking to get into Jamaica, believing it may be easier to reach Florida from there.
Instead of using Haiti’s northern coast as a jumping off point, boats are now departing from the southern Grand’Anse, which is one of three regional departments struck by the magnitude 7.2 earthquake.
“They pay $250 to $500 and a few days later, they end up in Cap-Haïtien,” said Giuseppe Loprete, head of the International Organization for Migration.
Cuba has said that Haitian migrants have been landing on the island in “precarious boat crafts” since Sept. 11.
“For several weeks, the flow of Haitian migrants in our region has increased, intending to reach the United States,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Under these circumstances, some vessels have stopped in Cuba.”
The statement says the migrants have received medical assistance when needed and “remain housed in various facilities equipped for it.”
Authorities did not say where those facilities are, but added that the Haitian migrants arrived in Cuba’s center and eastern regions. The statement did not specify the number of Haitian migrants currently in Cuba, though Delva said he understands there are about a thousand.
The foreign ministry said it was in contact with the Haitian government to coordinate “the safe and voluntary return of the people to their country by virtue of the international commitments on migration to which Cuba is a party.”
Bahamian officials have reported the interception of about 1,000 Haitian migrants in the past week, including about 400 who arrived on Sunday in the Ragged Island Cay chain in the southeastern Bahamas.
In a joint statement Friday, National Security Minister Wayne Munroe and Immigration Minister Keith Bell said that in the face of unprecedented levels of Haitian migration to countries throughout the region, the government of the Bahamas has decided to accelerate deportations.
“These measures have resulted in the interception of migrant vessels in the southern waters of The Bahamas, preventing passage into the Central Bahamas near New Providence where they were typically intercepted in past years. The routes to New Providence and other islands have effectively been cordoned off,” the ministers said. “We have also expedited the repatriation process so that the migrants who are currently here can be processed and returned to their country in record time.“
Among those assisting the Bahamas has been the U.S. Coast Guard, which has provided five cutters, three helicopters and other aircraft, Bahamian officials noted.
“We want to express in the strongest possible terms to the citizens of Haiti that the journey by boat to the Bahamas is a dangerous one, and we have deployed our assets and resources to prevent entry into our territorial waters,” the Bahamian government said. “When intercepted, you will be quickly processed and returned home. We are resolute in defending and protecting our borders.”
Several U.N. agencies have called for protection measures and a comprehensive regional approach for Haitians on the move.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said Friday that the Aug. 14 earthquake has added to other dire challenges Haitians face.
“Since June, the escalation of gang violence has affected 1.5 million people and displaced 19,000. More than 4 million Haitians are experiencing high levels of food insecurity, and this number is likely to increase in the coming months,” he said.
Delva, the Haiti migration chief, said that in addition to the three scheduled flights the Bahamas announced from Great Inagua on Friday, the Bahamas had already sent a planeload on Thursday. Among those repatriated are Haitians who were imprisoned, not just recently apprehended.
Delva, who asked for a “humanitarian moratorium” last month when the U.S. announced an acceleration in deportation flights to clear out the Del Rio camp, said he’s concerned about migrant reports of mistreatment at the hands of U.S. and Bahamian authorities.
Some migrants have said they were forced to spend days in U.S. detention without being able to change clothes, while others have complained about being hit and kicked in the Bahamas.
“Given the inhumane conditions many have been subjected to, you will need to have a lot, a lot of psychologists in the country,” Delva said. “It’s a hellish situation.”
In addition to the Bahamas and U.S., Mexico, which was coordinating with the Biden administration on preventing a flow of migrants to its border with the U.S., has told Haiti to expect at least two flights a week. Mexico was scheduled to repatriate 70 migrants on Friday to Port-au-Prince after returning 80 two days earlier. The U.S. also sent at least two flights Friday.
Delva said he believes the return of so many Haitians will exacerbate the country’s already spiraling gang and kidnapping problems.
“When these people arrive back with nothing, they are susceptible to any influences,” he said. “You can soon find some of them involved in unlawful activities.”
This story was originally published October 1, 2021 5:24 PM.