Royal Bahamas Defence Force grapples with surge in human smuggling


Patrol craft manned by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force set off each day from a former luxury resort hotel as the archipelago nation works to control a spike in migrants attempting to reach the United States on often rickety and overloaded boats.

One increasingly popular hub for human smugglers is the island chain of Bimini, which is less than 50 nautical miles from Florida and is best known for its pristine turquoise seas and wealthy tourists on yachts. In January 2022, a sole survivor was found clinging to a capsized vessel that had been carrying him and 39 other migrants from Bimini to Florida.

Gang violence, rising poverty and pandemic-related hardship in Haiti and throughout Latin America have fueled a growing number of voyages that often traverse through Bahamian waters, officials say, with boat decks dangerously overcrowded and migrants packed in sweltering holds below.

“It’s three days sailing time from northern Haiti in a small boat if there’s good wind,” Chief Petty Officer Onassis Ferguson, who leads marine patrols, said as he navigated a boat away from the Coral Harbour base. “Sometimes they have little outboard motors.” (Pictured: A member of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force departs from Coral Harbour Base in the Bahamas on April 20, 2022.)

Because the ships are so rudimentary, they frequently are blown off course, Ferguson said, as he pointed at a digital map inside the boat’s cockpit on April 20, 2022.

Earlier that day, 132 migrants thought to be from Haiti were intercepted in Bahamian waters by the U.S. Coast Guard and handed over to Bahamian officials.

More than 1,000 migrants entered the country in October 2021, the largest number on record, said Keith Bell, minister of labor and immigration, adding that most were believed to be headed toward U.S. shores.

Between October 1, 2021, and April 17, 2022, Coast Guard crews intercepted 3,519 Haitian migrants, according to U.S. government data, more than double the figure for the entire previous fiscal year that ended in September 2021.

In the 2020 fiscal year, only 418 Haitian migrants were intercepted and going back to 2017, annual numbers have not topped 1,000.

About 2,000 to 3,000 migrants have been entering the Bahamas each year since the pandemic began, Bell said, describing the vessels as “completely unseaworthy.”

“You see them clinging on to the sails, clinging onto the mast, clinging onto the sides of the boat,” he said.

While their frequency has increased, the journeys themselves are not new.

Migrants packed in below deck are often stripped down to their underwear to withstand the heat, according to Defence Force officials.

Bahamian officials also describe mixed nationality smuggling operations that involve migrants, usually from Latin America, who fly into the country on valid tourist visas.

They then travel to Bimini, where they typically check in to hotel rooms before leaving on night-time journeys, according to one Bahamian official who asked not to be identified. “Those criminals make you feel safe,” said Juan Esteban Montoya, a Colombian and the sole survivor of the boat that capsized, in reference to smugglers. “They tell you that in three, four hours you (will get to) Miami … All of that is a lie,” he said at a news conference.