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Concern is growing in the region as Haitian migrants try to flee by boat


Rickety boats packed with people are increasingly getting intercepted in the ocean between Haiti and the U.S. Hundreds of Haitians desperate to flee their country have been caught on the water just in recent weeks. And authorities in the Caribbean region are concerned it could be a new smuggling trend.

Patrick Oppmann is CNN's international correspondent and Havana bureau chief, and he joins us now to talk more about this. Welcome back to the program.

PATRICK OPPMANN: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So can you just describe this journey that these migrants are taking? Exactly what kind of boats are they using?

OPPMANN: You know, I don't even think it's fair to say that they're boats when you see some of the images of people in overcrowded vessels that they've built themselves, in a lot of cases. And we're talking in recent weeks about, you know, more than a hundred - in one case, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicting a boat full of - about 200 people aboard one boat. And these are boats that don't have proper navigation. Oftentimes, their engines break down. That's why we've seen some arriving here by accident in Cuba. And this is very, very dangerous at any time.

CHANG: You know that many of these people are trying to navigate the ocean without proper equipment, without proper navigation. Is there evidence that smugglers are involved?

OPPMANN: Absolutely. And people have to pay, you know, hundreds of dollars, sometimes more, to get on these boats. And usually, it's more often than not a journey that ends in failure.

CHANG: And the people who are willing to make this journey, are these mostly families or mostly single adults?

OPPMANN: You see young children a lot of times. But I think it's people that have one thing in common, which is they just don't want to be in Haiti, despite the danger of getting on a boat like this and spending days at sea. And what we've heard from people is that the economic conditions in Haiti are forcing them to leave - the chaos that's been caused by the pandemic, a real sharp increase in gang violence in Haiti - gangs that oftentimes seem to control parts of Haiti more than the government does. And then, of course, the earthquake and the political instability caused by the assassination of the President Jovenel Moise in July.

CHANG: Many reasons for them to want to flee Haiti - do we know - are they specifically trying to reach the U.S.? Or is the immediate objective just to get out of Haiti, no matter where they ultimately end up?

OPPMANN: Nearly everyone that we've heard from has said that their ultimate goal is to get to the U.S. And then we've seen that with the people making the land crossing who might have spent a couple years first in countries like Brazil or Chile before making that journey north.

CHANG: Well, as this migration continues, I'm curious - what are the governments in Cuba and the Bahamas saying right now? Like, how are they framing the situation? How much are they willing to help and absorb some of this migration?

OPPMANN: They're very concerned in the Bahamas, where the general consensus is that they do not want Haitian migrants. The Bahamians feel that the Haitians are there to take their jobs. And they've received about a thousand Haitian migrants in a period of about a week in the beginning of this month, and most of them have been sent back at this point. And the Bahamas has asked for the United States' help - you know, help from the Coast Guard.

But they've also said that there needs to be a wider regional conversation. That's something they said in Cuba, which is not a place that Haitian migrants or really anyone else is trying to get to because Cuba has its own economic difficulties right now. But all the same, Cuba has said in the last week or so that they've received about 400 Haitian migrants - just people that got lost or their boats broke down. And Cuba says that they will feed and clothe and give them proper medical care before they send these migrants back.

So I think there's a lot of concern in countries across the region, not just in the United States. So they're calling on the U.S., not just to interdict and deport people, but to try to come up with a long-term strategy to deal with some of the root causes of why so many people right now seem to be wanting to risk everything to leave Haiti, you know, no matter the cost.

CHANG: That is CNN's international correspondent Patrick Oppmann. Thank you so much for joining us.

OPPMANN: A pleasure speaking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Amy Isackson
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