Hard times in Haiti mean many risk lives at sea

LIMONADE, Haiti – When Alix Charles slipped out of his tin-roofed shack at night, he didn’t say where he was going, only that he would be back soon.

The 23-year-old father of two infant daughters left on a treacherous ocean voyage that turned deadly for at least 15 migrants and perhaps dozens more. His family still didn’t know Saturday, six days after the accident, whether he survived – or how they would get by if he didn’t.

“I’m not angry, he went to search for a life,” his 20-year-old wife, Dieula, said as she breast-fed one daughter beside a row of cactuses in this northern Haitian town, an hour’s walk from the sea, and waited for news. “The problem is I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, and there is no one to help me take care of the kids.”

There have been enough catastrophes for Haitian migrants that everyone is aware of the danger. Yet the perilous voyages are a familiar passage for Haitians, forced by their country’s almost medieval economy to spend more than a year’s cost of food and housing and risk their lives for a chance to work abroad.

Thousands flee this country of more than 9 million each year to reach “lot bo dlo” – Creole for the other side of the water. Many travel the same way as the migrants who were killed when their overloaded sailboat struck a coral reef at night off the island of West Caicos, launching some 200 people into the sea. Some managed to swim to land, while others clung to the jagged reef for 17 hours without food or water. Nearly 70 are still missing.

Police in Turks and Caicos are conducting a criminal investigation into the incident and still interviewing some survivors. A full list of those on board has not been released.

There is no mystery about why people leave: Haitians endure extreme poverty on a mountainous island with a higher population density than Japan, suffering through ever-worsening hunger, natural disasters and an almost utter lack of jobs. Some 80 percent of the population gets by on $2 a day.

So overloaded boats head north, south and east to other Caribbean islands, to the United States or to the Turks and Caicos Islands or Bahamas – which can be stepping stones to the U.S. or a place to find work in the underground economy.

Haitians find work in construction and on sugar plantations, at all-inclusive beach resorts and restaurants – opportunities that do not exist in places like Limonade. A dusty collection of concrete, mud and wooden shacks just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Limonade is a frequent recruiting ground for the smugglers who arrange migrant voyages.

Many do not make it. Some are halted by the U.S. Coast Guard or the forces of other countries. Dozens have been killed in just the last two years in boat accidents like the one off Turks and Caicos. Officials say overloading is usually the cause.

Michel St. Croix, the mayor of nearby Cap Haitien, the country’s second largest city, said some boat captains know they will crash their vessels at the first sign of trouble, yet do nothing to warn or prepare their passengers in tightly packed decks below.

“I believe the captains are criminals,” St. Croix said. “They take people on the sea knowing that people are going to die.”

Haitians go to the Turks and Caicos, a British territory, to work in construction or maintenance, easing what has traditionally been a shortage of laborers in the sparsely populated, tourism-dependent chain. But now many say it has become harder to find jobs amid the global economic slump.

Jack Tonton, a 22-year-old who said he has managed to find work in construction and as a plumber in recent years, said would-be employers are now demanding residency papers – something few migrants can produce.

“If you ain’t got no papers, it’s difficult,” Tonton said outside a clutch of ramshackle cinderblock houses off a dirt road near the airport. “I ain’t got no work to do, ain’t got nothing to do, because I need papers to work.”

Tonton said he has crossed from Haiti to the Turks and Caicos twice in a boat and was deported once. “There’s better opportunities here, that’s why I made sure to come back.”

U.S. officials talk about development efforts in Haiti as a means of preventing floods of migrants. President Rene Preval has pleaded with U.S. officials for months to declare an extended but temporary halt on deportations of illegal Haitian migrants in the wake of last year’s four tropical storms.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an April visit that the issue was under consideration, but that the Obama administration wants to ensure that it does not encourage more people to undertake the perilous journey.

The ship that carried Charles toward Turks and Caicos was a red-and-blue painted sailboat named the Se Lavi, meaning “that’s life.” It loaded late July 24 and left before dawn July 25 from a secluded marsh a several-mile walk from Charles’ hometown of Limonade through forest, mangroves and swamp.

Most aboard did not tell their families where they were going, some to save them from worry, others out of fear of admitting they had spent all their savings, or to keep the voyage a secret.

At least eight men from Limonade were aboard the Se Lavi when it slammed into the reef Sunday night. Some survivors swam two miles to shore, while others waited for rescue.

The ordeal began weeks before when men from nearby Cap-Haitien pulled into the dusty town on motorcycles, spreading word to the young and unemployed that a boat would soon leave. Most paid about 15,000 gourdes, or $375, more than most Haitians live on in an entire year.

“When they hear that a boat is leaving, they rush to sell everything they have,” said Charles’ mother, Adline Moransy, her hands shaking as she spoke. Her eyes were red and hair uncombed after several sleepless nights worrying about her son.

Alix Charles had made the journey once before, working as a gardener and handyman for a British woman after the birth of his now 3-year-old first daughter, Esmerelda. He made enough money to buy a plane ticket for his return.

This time, the family can only hope he is alive. Charles’ godfather, who lives in Turks and Caicos, called to say he heard rumors that Charles had survived the journey, his mother said.

Migrants have been trickling back on flights from Providenciales, the most populated island in Turks and Caicos. The next flight is expected Monday and Dieula may have to wait until then to learn the fate of her husband. Like dozens of other families on this desperate stretch of coastline, all she can do is wait.