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NEW YORK – As the chances of survival for several dozen migrants lost in the Florida Straits waned on Wednesday, Jan. 26, Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau lamented the “horrific tragedy” and encouraged support for migrants that feel a need to flee their homes.
“It’s always so, so tragic when this happens,” Pinder told Crux. “It’s always sad when human life is lost and maybe let’s always keep a premium on life and assist migrants whenever we can.”
Search crews continued to look for survivors on Wednesday with little luck. In two days of searching the U.S. Coast Guard recovered one dead body with 38 people still unaccounted for, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jo-Ann Burdian said at a news conference Wednesday.
Burdian said chances of survival are slim.
“It’s dire,” Burdian said. “The longer they remain in the water without food, without water, it’s cold, with the marine environment, the sun, the conditions. Every moment that passes becomes much more dire and unlikely that anyone can survive.”
The search began at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25, after a commercial mariner on board the tug and barge “Signet Intruder,” part of the Signet Maritime Corporation, notified the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami Command Center that they had located a cap-sized 25-foot vessel about 40 miles east of Fort Pierce, Florida.
The mariner, whose name was not revealed, rescued a man off of the hull of the capsized vessel and kept him there until the Coast Guard arrived. The man was then taken to shore where he was treated for dehydration and sun exposure.
The survivor’s nationality was not released. He told authorities that he left Bimini, in the Bahamas, on the night of Saturday, Jan. 22, with 39 other people on board the vessel. The vessel capsized shortly after they departed due to severe weather in the area. The survivor, nor anyone else on board the vessel, was not wearing a life jacket.
“Their decision to take to the sea is a complicated one,” Burdian said. “Certainly as we saw in this case the waters in the northern torrent straits can be quite treacherous, and while for many, recreational boaters here in south Florida the transit between points of south Florida and points of the Bahamas can be quick and easy, cases like this, small vessels, overloaded and inexperienced operators, at night, in bad weather, is incredibly dangerous.”
Burdian said the operation appeared to be part of a human-smuggling operation, as the vessel was in a normal route for human smuggling into the U.S. She said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations is leading the investigation into the facts and background of the case while other agencies continue search and rescue efforts.
The Bahamas is a popular corridor for migrants, especially Haitians, trying to get to the U.S. because of its geography: The southeastern most island, Inagua, is less than 100 miles from Haiti. Meanwhile, on the other end, the northwest extreme island, Bimini, is about 50 miles from Miami.
Tuesday wasn’t the first time a vessel of migrants was found on its way to the States. Burdian said in the past year about 700 people have been intercepted at sea off of South Florida.
Since the start of the new year, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) has already reported multiple human smuggling attempts that it has intercepted. On Friday, Jan. 21, the RBGF 88 migrants were apprehended aboard a Haitian sloop west of Inagua. The same day, it rescued 31 migrants from a suspected smuggling operation after their vessel capsized off of Bimini.
On Jan. 6, The RBGF also apprehended 122 migrants north of the Bahamian island Eleuthera, where they also found two dead migrants on board the vessel. Finally, on New Year’s Day a patrol apprehended twenty suspected migrants off of a boat before it left port.
On Sunday, Jan. 23, the U.S. Coast Guard posted a message on social media affirming that crews are patrolling the waters around Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, and warning that “navigating the seas in overloaded and less than seaworthy vessels is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life.”
There have been other instances in the past where these situations were deadly. In Feb. 2019, 28 Haitian migrants died, and 17 others were rescued after a boat sank while they were being smuggled from the Bahamas to the U.S. Similarly, in November 2013, 30 Haitians who tried to sail from the Bahamas to the U.S. were found drowned after their boat capsized.
Pinder noted that sometimes people have no choice but to flee to try and find a better situation than the one at home, which is why they risk their lives.
“People are looking for a better life,” Pinder said. “As long as you have people living in situations where they have tremendous social, economic deprivation, and maybe even political repression, you’re going to have this kind of movement.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg