By Fiona Van Kampen
PHILIPSBURG--A group of undocumented immigrants is "missing" after their boat set off from French St. Martin. The boat is said to have run out of fuel, after which it was found by the US Coast Guard in the waters of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
It was initially believed the boat and captain had been taken by the BVI authorities. However, Royal Virgin Island Police Service (RVIPF) spokeswoman Diane Drayton said that although the boat was in RVIPF's possession, the passengers had been taken by the US Coast Guard by the time RVIPF found the boat.
"I have been informed that the US Coast Guard did contact the RVIPF Marine Unit about a boat in distress with 37 passengers onboard in BVI waters," Drayton said in an invited statement. "However, the occupants of the boat, which was in a dangerous condition, had been relocated by the US Coast Guard by the time the Marine Officers arrived. The empty vessel was later towed to the RVIPF Marine Base. We have no further knowledge on the whereabouts of the occupants from the boat."
Two separate sources have stated that all Haitian immigrants have been returned to Haiti by the US Coast Guard. A Dominicano was traced back to Puerto Rico, where he is said to be in custody in San Juan, awaiting deportation, and a Cuban man is missing.
An active human-trafficking trade is still ongoing and St. Maarten is used as a transfer point to take refugees to the US, a source stated. Multiple ships are thought to sail during weeks when the sea is calm and the Coast Guard is not around. "It's big business," she said.
The source said the missing boat, which according to her had some 27 refugees on board, including a number of children, had left Marina Royale in Marigot around sunset only a week and a half ago. The boat, which was en route to St. Thomas via Tortola, never arrived.
No official news has been received about the fate of the undocumented immigrants onboard, other than the notification from RVIPF spokeswoman Drayton. Family members of one Haitian man have heard from him that the group was picked up by the US Coast Guard. The other Haitians and the Cuban man have not been heard from since.
Family and friends
This has raised great concern with the friends and relatives of 51-year-old Cuban Pedro Manuel Peralta Nuñoz, who was onboard along with a Dominicano man and the Haitians.
The Dominicano is said to have sent out a message since the incident saying he is being held by the authorities in San Juan, and a relative of the Haitian man who was onboard has heard that the boat ran out of fuel, after which the US Coast Guard ship took the immigrants back to Haiti. The girlfriend of a Haitian man said this after receiving a message from her boyfriend stating he was back in Haiti.
The group of Haitians, most of whom were said not to be carrying passports, were said to have been dumped on the coast of Cap Haitian, a four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. They were said not to be carrying any cash, but a bare minimum of possessions and no passports. Children were said to be amongst the group.
Despite the fact that none of these statements have been confirmed by the authorities, friends and relatives of the people onboard are hopeful that their relatives have not actually drowned, as they first feared. However, their quest for information has gone unanswered, as the authorities in the US, who are said to have taken the immigrants, have failed to confirm the details of the incident to the relatives.
The story goes back further. The source, a local woman who provided assistance to Peralta Nuñoz when he was in St. Maarten, tells her friend's story.
"Pedro is a 51-year-old Cuban. His partner is American. He wanted to live with his partner, but could not get a visa for the US. Some four months ago, he travelled to Antigua, one of the only islands where Cubans don't need a visa," the source said, before adding that Antigua is commonly used by Cubans as a starting point from which to go to the US.
"Pedro paid a few thousand dollars to the traffickers, who came from St. Maarten with a boat. There were some 20 people on the boat. It was a basic boat, with no inside space and no toilets. The boat didn't seem suitable for so many people on a long-distance trip."
The source said the ship had stopped in St. Maarten instead of going directly to St. Thomas, which is US territory. "The refugees were told there was a problem with the engines and they would continue in a few days," she said.
She then told how the group of Cubans were taken to a ramshackle house in the Dutch Quarter area. "They were due to sail out a few times, even up to the point when they were in the boat, but every time they had to turn back, either because the Coast Guard was on patrol or because the sea was too rough, and in one case because the engines failed again."
The group of Cubans were looked after by people in the community. "They had no money, no food, nothing," said the source, who became friends with Pedro after repeatedly giving him food.
A few weeks after arriving in St. Maarten, a group of the Cubans was stopped by the police, who were searching at that time for a group of Venezuelans who had committed a robbery. The Cubans, who were not suspected of any crime, were handed over to the Immigration Department, which gave them temporary papers with a requirement to report to the department on a weekly basis.
Police spokesman Inspector Ricardo Henson recalled the incident. "We picked up some seven or eight Cubans and handed them over to the Immigration Department. That's all I know about it," he said. Peralta Nuñoz was one of the group.
"Pedro said that the St. Maarten Immigration Department treated him well," said his friend. "But after some three months on the island, Pedro was getting desperate. He had no money, no food and no extra clothes, and was living in squalor. I even let him stay with me for a week or so."
She said her friend had lost trust in his trafficker after the engines of the boat broke down again, forcing the boat back to shore. "Pedro basically told the human trafficker he didn't trust he would ever make it to the States," she added.
Through contacts in the Haitian community, Peralta Nuñoz found a new trafficker, who offered him a place on a boat leaving on Saturday, November 29. He accepted the place, despite knowing that once again he would be travelling in a simple boat with two engines, no shade, with the sides of the boat not high enough to protect passengers in rough seas, no inside space, and not knowing how many people would be onboard.
"Pedro was worried for his safety, but he wanted to reach his goal. He came to ask me if I could get him a life-vest," said the source. "By that time, I felt we had become friends, so I got him a life-vest. I was concerned about him."
This second boat also had tried to sail out on a previous occasion. "They turned back because the sea was too rough," said the source. "At that time, there were two babies onboard. I don't know if they were on the trip on November 29."
It is now a week and a half since the boat left and nothing has been heard from Pedro. His partner in the US tried to speak to the authorities in the British Virgin Islands after he read an online article stating the boat might have been seized there and the captain arrested, but was not given any information.
The partner also has contacted the US authorities in Puerto Rico. "The authorities of both countries wouldn't tell me anything. I am very worried about Pedro," he said. "The newspaper article I saw online was later removed. It said that a boat with its captain had been seized for trafficking near Tortola. But the article was later removed. I want to know: what happened to the immigrants?"
St. Maarten Immigration and Naturalisation Department Director Udo Aron did not have any information at hand, so he could not give any information about Peralta Nuñoz and the other Cubans. The BVI authorities said they had the boat, but had no knowledge of the people's whereabouts.
The US Coast Guard, when told of the circumstances, said they did take undocumented people back to their islands. "We call that repatriation," a spokesperson said. The Public Relations Department could not provide details about individual cases, but said it would look into the case. It also stated that Coast Guard ships had a United States Citizen and Immigration Service (US-CIS) officer on board who would decide whether someone would be "repatriated."
A US-CIS spokeswoman said: "If someone shows credible fear, they will be interviewed and a decision will be taken as to whether they can pursue a claim to seek asylum. If no credible fear is shown, they can be repatriated."
"Credible fear" means the fear of returning to one's country combined with fear of torture and persecution. The spokeswoman said she could not go into detail about individual cases and in this case information had to be obtained from the Coast Guard.
It is likely that the group indeed was picked up by the US Coast Guard, which may have returned the Haitians to Haiti. Questions would arise whether this type of action is legal, considering many of the Haitians were not carrying passports, and why, if found in BVI waters, were they not handed over to the BVI authorities?
There is no way to establish whether all immigrants who left St. Maarten were safe and accounted for at the time they were taken off their boat, and no way to establish whether all of them made it back home safely.
Another important question, if indeed the US authorities have taken the immigrants, is: What happened to Pedro Manuel Peralta Nuñoz? That is something his partner, friends and many others are keen to have answered.