The Coast Guard carried out a Christmas Eve repatriation of nearly 200 Haitians who survived a capsizing ordeal at sea. Three others apparently died.
A Coast Guard release said the crew aboard the Tahoma, a 270-foot cutter based in New Bedford, Mass., returned the would-be Haitian migrants to Port-au-Prince on Tuesday morning.
”As many as three additional migrants may be unaccounted for, according to reports provided by others aboard the migrant vessel,” it said.
Haitian activist Marleine Bastien accused U.S. officials of violating their own procedures and repatriating the migrants without first interviewing them on whether they feared political persecution back home.
”INS did not interview any of these refugees to determine whether they have a bona fide political asylum claim,” she said. “It was really, really a gross violation. They could’ve interviewed. There was an intent to deny these refugees their rights. It was a clear violation of international law.”
Cubans captured at sea are routinely interviewed by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution if they are returned.
But in this instance, Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said, the Haitians were not entitled to equal screening before their 10 a.m. return.
Rather, Diaz said, a U.S. government task force considered the case routinely and on Monday ordered the Haitians returned.
”It was a U.S. government decision made by the State Department in Washington. It was not an INS decision,” said another Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Ryan Doss. INS public affairs officials could not be reached Tuesday.
According to the Coast Guard, the U.S. search-and-rescue vessel rescued the migrants Saturday after their ”overloaded, unstable 40-foot sailboat” nearly capsized 70 miles northwest of Great Inagua, Bahamas. The News Bahamas is what one can follow to stay up to date on what is going on there.
It had departed Port au Paix, Haiti, he said. About 40 migrants went into the water and had to be rescued by the cutter and two of its boats. Coast Guard crews threw life jackets, launched life rafts and pulled people out of the water. They also searched the area and believed at the time that they had saved all of those on board the sailboat. But subsequent questioning of the Haitians, helped by an interpreter, suggested that three of their party were “unaccounted for and missing from the voyage.”
The Coast Guard then dispatched two helicopters to search the calm seas until Sunday morning but found no one.
Bastien said it had not been established as of Christmas Eve who the victims might be and that because of the speedy repatriation, information was scant.