By Caribbean News Now contributor
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands -- The death of 17 migrants following the capsizing of the vessel in which they were travelling after being taken in tow by the Marine Branch of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force (RTCIPF) has led to allegations of incompetence on the part of the coastal patrol and calls for a full inquiry into the incident.
The vessel had been intercepted by the RTCIPF on Christmas Day and capsized as it was being towed into dock to offload the suspected illegal migrants.
According to Police Commissioner Colin Farquhar, there were 17 confirmed fatalities -- 12 male and five female adults. The remains will be repatriated following post mortems (autopsies) to establish the cause of death.
“I can confirm that 33 people were detained as suspected illegal Haitian immigrants. This group consisted of 21 males, including one child, and 12 females. These people will be repatriated to Haiti at the earliest opportunity,” Farquhar added.
Clara Gardiner, permanent secretary, ministry of border control and labour said, “The 33 survivors will continue to be held in our immigration removal centre on Providenciales until the police have concluded their inquiries. Once these have concluded we will repatriate these people back to Haiti.”
“We are engaged with our colleagues in the Ministry of Health, as well as the Haitian Consul here in the Turks and Caicos Islands, to determine the best course of action as to what should be done with the remains of the 17 person who died at the appropriate time. Clearly, I cannot yet say when this will happen, as the ongoing police inquiry naturally takes precedence,” she added.
Wednesday’s incident is a repeat of a similar event that occurred in May 2007, when an illegal Haitian sloop approached Providenciales and was taken in tow by the TCI coastal unit. It also capsized and at least 36 lost their lives.
Experienced local boatman are laying the blame, at least in part, on the coastal patrol, which in both cases attempted to tow the unstable sloops at too high a speed, making the boat wallow in the high seas.
The normal procedure for towing a low speed sailboat is to come alongside and cross spring lines, moving the boat at approximately 4 to 5 knots until it is safely docked.
According to Farquhar, an initial eye witness account indicated that the capsize was apparently caused by the movement of those on board to one side of what was described as a badly overloaded vessel.
“We will investigate the cause of the capsize accident,” he said.
Members of the Haitian community in the TCI say that the Haitian migrants were under the mistaken impression that opportunities for employment still exist in the territory.
One person said that the call made by TCI's Minister of Immigration Don-Hue Gardiner
a year ago to make illegal Haitian immigrants’ lives “unbearable” has now taken on real meaning.