At least 18 migrants from Haiti died Wednesday when their overloaded sailboat capsized as it was being towed to shore in the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials in the British territory said.
A marine unit of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force had intercepted the packed sloop about two hours earlier and was escorting it to shore when it abruptly overturned, sparking a frantic search-and-rescue operation in the predawn darkness.
The cause of the capsizing has not been confirmed. Karlo Pelissier, the Haitian consul to the Turks and Caicos, said he was told by survivors that several migrants attempted to jump off the 28-foot boat and flee to land as they neared the island of Providenciales, and that the surge caused the overloaded sloop to overturn.
Authorities rescued 32 migrants, including one 12-year-old boy, and recovered the bodies of 18 people. Divers and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters were assisting in a search for additional survivors or victims. The area where the incident occurred is in clear water about 150 yards from shore and the death toll was not expected to increase significantly, said Neil Smith a government spokesman.
The migrants, mostly from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, had set off on their voyage on Sunday night, Pelissier said. They paid $500-$1,000 each and were trying to reach Miami or the Bahamas as well as Turks and Caicos, which has an established community of migrants from Haiti working in construction, tourism and service jobs.
Haitian officials say they have attempted to discourage migrants from risking these journeys.
“We are saddened by such tragedy and present our condolences and prayers to the families and friends of those affected by this accident,” said Salim Succar, an advisor to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
The Turks and Caicos, in addition to being a destination for Haitian migrants seeking to escape their impoverished country, is also a favored route of smugglers.