Kidnap fears drive Haitian women to Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, 1 Feb 2023:

Hedwige Brenord, a 51-year-old Haitian-born woman, lost her niece Rose F. Moreau when the makeshift vessel carrying her capsized while she was attempting a perilous migrant voyage to Puerto Rico.

Her voice faltered as she remembered her 28-year-old relative, recalling that she “fled with her family, having abandoned her home in Haiti because of the kidnapping situation.”

Brenord expressed concern about growing instability, a breakdown in public safety and a sharp rise in kidnappings, robberies and rapes in that impoverished Caribbean nation.

“I think the international community could do a better job, get the kidnappings under control and provide security,” said Brenord, a resident of the US for the past 30 years.

Haiti has been racked by an unprecedented crisis since the July 2021 assassination of then-president Jovenel Moise and is currently immersed in a spiral of violence.

Last week, dozens of police angered over the killings of fellow officers by armed gangs attacked the residence of prime minister Ariel Henry.

Leonard Prophil, a leader of members of the Haitian community in Puerto Rico, said kidnappers specifically target people with relatives in the US and particularly women – since parents are more likely to respond to a situation affecting their daughters.

He said the kidnappers demand between US$20,000 and US$50,000 in ransom to release their victim, adding that he experienced this ordeal first-hand because his niece was abducted at the age of 23.

“When they kidnapped my niece, it was traumatic for all of us because they knew my family had people here in the US,” a tearful Prophil recalled.

That growing risk has led an increasing number of women to try to emigrate to Puerto Rico, the US Coast Guard in that US commonwealth confirmed.

Eleven Haitian women, including the 28-year-old Moreau, died on 12 May 2022 when their boat capsized while en route to Puerto Rico via the Mona Passage – a shark-infested strait separating the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico that has been a habitual route for US-bound Dominicans and now is attracting an increasing number of Haitians.

Those 11 women have not been the only victims. A record total of at least 321 migrants died or disappeared on Caribbean maritime routes in 2022, according to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) figures.

Only half of those who died or disappeared were able to be identified, the IOM said, adding that of that group 80 had set off from Haiti, 69 from Cuba, 56 from the Dominican Republic and 25 from Venezuela.

According to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, a total of 929 Haitians arrived in Puerto Rico in 2022 – three times as many as in the previous year (310).

In January alone, the Coast Guard rescued two groups of Haitian migrants (the first consisting of 55 people and the second of 17) who had been left stranded by people smugglers on uninhabited Monito Island, one of three islands in the Mona Passage.

In San Juan’s municipal cemetery, which has made a burial space available for Haitian migrants, Prophil inscribed the names of the dead and messages from their family members on the gravestones.

He also said while placing a Haitian flag on the tomb of Rodney Junior Laguerre, a three-year-old boy who died in a failed Mona Passage crossing in December, that he is trying to raise funds for a “dignified” funeral for his countrymen.

Speaking at a shelter for Haitian migrants in San Juan, he said his compatriots find it difficult to access health, education and translation services and psychological support upon their arrival in Puerto Rico.

Migrants often arrive with debts that must be repaid to people traffickers, who could harm their family members back in Haiti if they do not receive the money within an agreed time period.

Prophil said he is conducting market research with the goal of starting a Haitian restaurant in Puerto Rico, an establishment where his countrymen could prepare recipes from their homeland and earn a living.

The representative also urged the local population to “put themselves in the shoes of the Haitians” and provide legal or psychological aid to the community, and particularly help them with legalising their status.

Joslin Berquin, a Haitian migrant who has been living in Puerto Rico for two decades, said he has experienced those problems first-hand.

“If you have family members who can help you, then it’s a bit better. But if not, things are really difficult.”

– EFE