Nearly three weeks after 17 Miami-bound Haitian migrants perished at sea when their overloaded 33-foot speedboat capsized in the waters off New Providence in the Bahamas, they still have not been buried, two Haitian community leaders and a government spokesman confirmed to the Miami Herald.
“Who do you release them to?” Clint Watson, press secretary to Bahamas Prime Minister Philip E. Davis, said. “They are trying to identify them so that we know who to release them to.”
The Haitian government has promised to bury the individuals in The Bahamas, and Davis has said The Bahamas will make sure that the victims receive proper burials, though he has not said if the country will help with the costs.
“We will discuss with the Haitian government what needs to happen, how we can make that happen,” Watson said. “The prime minister has said he remains committed to ensure they receive a proper burial.”
Those discussions could take place as soon as next week. Interim Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is among several leaders expected to attend a United Nations meeting on climate change at a resort in Nassau Tuesday through Thursday. The Bahamian prime minister is expected to take advantage of Henry’s presence, several sources tell the Miami Herald, to discuss a number of concerning topics.
They range from recent comments made by Haiti’s chargé d’affaires about the Bahamas’ visa process being prejudicial toward Haitians, to Haiti’s deepening political instability and gang warfare that have led to several deaths on the high seas in recent months and are fueling the largest boat refugee crisis since 2004.
“We are hoping to have bilaterals,” Watson said. “The prime minister has remained open to having a bilateral with the Haitian prime minister.”
A Haitian government spokesman confirmed that for now, Henry is expected to be in the Bahamas. Meanwhile, his Foreign Minister Jean Victor Géneus on Friday wrote to the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States in Washington requesting that a special meeting be called for 10 a.m. Wednesday so he can brief members on the situation in Haiti. Géneus’ request comes after OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro this week accused the international community of abandoning Haiti and failing the country with its “20 years of erratic political strategy.”
Haitian community leaders in the Bahamas say they are also awaiting Henry and hope to provide him with an earful. Their concern is not just the violence back home that, according to the U.N., has led to more than 934 killings and 680 kidnappings since January, but what they see as tense relations between both countries.
The lack of strong ties, they believe, is among the reasons many in the community remain afraid to come forward and claim their loved ones, despite reassurances by Bahamian authorities that they have nothing to fear. Adding to their concerns are recent comments by Haiti’s chief diplomat on the island about the number of Haitians living in the Bahamas and difficulties Haitians face acquiring visas to travel to the Bahamas.
“The Bahamas is not America,” said a Haitian pastor who didn’t want his name used. “In America, there isn’t any retaliation once you talk. ... Here people are afraid, they don’t want to come forward. If they do, they are afraid that they will be asked questions about the investigation.”
During a July 29 press conference, Haiti’s chargé d’affaires, Anthony Pierre Brutus, who was out of the country at the time of the capsize, criticized the Bahamas’ visa process for Haitians in comparison to those of Canada and the United States, and said he believed “we have 150,000 Haitians living here” in the Bahamas.
Speaking in Creole through a translator, he then added, “I will also take this opportunity to say there are 150,000 Haitians who are illegal and who have spent more than 20, 25 years living in the country.”
While the comment about undocumented Haitians was not properly translated in English by the translator, the one mentioning that there were 150,000 Haitians legally residing in the country was repeated in English and immediately triggered a reaction from the government, which refuted the claims.
According to several media reports, Immigration Director Kenturah Ferguson said there is no information to support Brutus’ claim that 150,000 Haitians live in The Bahamas. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry also said, “there is no legal obstacle to any nationality applying for a visa to enter The Bahamas or obtaining a work permit to enter The Bahamas legitimately.”
Weeks later, the comments continue to fan tensions in a country where Haitian migrants have been known to change their names to escape detection.
Brutus did not respond to a Herald request for comment. Some Haitians, fearful of the spotlight the migration tragedy and the comments have put on them, want Henry to use the visit to smooth relations and address their concerns about what his government is doing to help stabilize the country. They are blaming the loss of Haitian lives on hardship and a lack of representation in the island chain, not just in their crisis-wracked homeland.
“It’s only when a catastrophe like this happens, you will hear them say ‘We are coming to do this and to do that,’ ” said Alcinor Saimphorin, 52, who lives in Abaco. “When they want, they remember we exist but if we had the support, a lot of children, pregnant women would not be losing their life at sea.”
Saimphorin’s daughter, Mary Nirvah Saimphorin, who would have turned 14 in October, was among the victims and remains among just six victims who have been identified. Her father said he was able to claim her body from a government morgue but is now struggling to bury her.
“There are some things that when it happens, you just aren’t prepared for it,” he said. ”I don’t know when I will be good again, maybe when I’m dead.”
Saimphorin said his daughter’s presence on the speedboat was not his doing but that of her mother, who lives in Miami. After years of being separated from the girl, her mother wanted her to come join her in the United States. Believing those who told her that the passage would be safe and the child wouldn’t even see the ocean, the mom gave $8,000 to a smuggler, Saimphorin said.
“They took the money and bought another boat with the money,” he said. ‘That is why they were killed.”
In addition to Mary Nirvah, authorities have identified the only man onboard and two adult females. The family of another dead migrant, Altanie Ivoy, and her 1-year-old daughter, Kourtney Volmyr, also came forward.
Bahamian authorities, who are being assisted by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, say the investigation remains ongoing. So far, four individuals, Donald Watson, McKenzie Jerome, Eulan McKinney and Wilbens Joseph, have been charged with 18 counts of manslaughter. Watson was the boat captain and he was still on probation after being convicted of human smuggling in 2019 in federal court in West Palm Beach. He also has spent time in a Cuban prison. Both Watson and McKinney were also charged with reckless operation of a vessel. All were sent to jail and given another court date on Oct. 28.
Clint Watson, the Bahamian press secretary, said the Bahamas, an archipelago of 700 islands with a population of about 400,000, lives every day with the repercussions from the crisis in Haiti, a close neighbor.
“This is a real issue and a real challenge for us here in the Bahamas and what we want to do is find the best way for our people to be able to do what they do and for the Haitian people, to understand their challenges as well. We believe dialogue needs to happen and we don’t believe enough has been happening with the Haitian government,” he said. “We pressed on numerous occasions for something to happen and I believe there needs to be great dialogue for the Haitian government so they can solve this problem together.
“The region is ready to assist Haiti, but Haiti has to want the assistance and Haiti has to be willing to work on its solution for its own people” Watson added. “That is another issue that the prime minister will continue to raise and reiterate at these meetings.”