Cruise ships rescue marooned Haitians

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The Independent US

On what should have been an idyllic holiday cruise through the Bahamas, passengers on three sailboats were shocked to find nearly 300 exhausted people stranded on the barren, uninhabited Flamingo Cay islet, 150 miles south-east of the Bahamian capital Nassau.

A doctor on holiday who went ashore to investigate was overwhelmed by the castaways' "desperate situation". They had little shelter and no fresh water to drink.

By the time the sailboat skippers radioed for help on Wednesday evening, 14 of the Haitian refugees were dead of dehydration and exposure, and 65 needed urgent attention for kidney failure and hypothermia. The remaining 200 were loaded on a Royal Bahamas Defence Force vessel and are expected to be deported back to Haiti.

A joint rescue effort by Bahamanian and US Coast Guards evacuated the weakest survivors by helicopter to the closest medical clinic, 70 miles away. One overworked physician attended them through the night.

When Michael Minns watched the first victims carried ashore, the owner of a small marina in Georgetown assumed they were corpses until they began to revive with the help of intravenous drips. "Some of them were comatose," said Mr Minns. "I thought they were dead. They had very little clothing. Some were in their underwear and they were covered with dust and dirt. None of them could walk. Most had trouble even holding their heads up." Two Coast Guard cutters took extra medical supplies and helicopters ferried victims to doctors in Nassau and Great Exuma.

Communication was a struggle with the Creole-speaking survivors, and rescuers have still not established whether the Haitians, fleeing the hardship of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, were shipwrecked by rough seas, or marooned by the immigrant traffickers they paid to get them out.

The engine of their rickety 50ft wooden vessel was not up to the strain, and the group may have drifted for up to six days before washing up. But there was also speculation that the traffickers may have badly miscalculated when they dropped the group off on Flamingo Cay.

Last year, the US Coast Guard intercepted 480 Haitians trying to enter the US, a fraction of the numbers who made it ashore undetected.

The plight of the Flamingo Cay castaways received short shrift from the mainstream American media. The absence of pictures may be part of the explanation for the media's lack of interest, but the Haitian refugees highlighted an embarrassing reality of US policy.

Unlike Cuban refugees, Haitian exiles in Florida get little sympathy for their economic and political plight , and the US immigration service regularly deports them despite widespread objections that this policy shows de facto racial discrimination against people of African descent.

Every year, hundreds of Haitian boat people flee the violence and poverty that blights their island. Many settle as menial labourers in the Bahamas, where there are an estimated 40,000 undocumented Haitians among a general population of 280,000. Many eke out a living as housecleaners and construction workers.

Other families stop off here only long enough to arrange for another middleman who charges thousands of dollars more to take them to Florida.

Just 29 of the 700 islands in the Bahamas are inhabited, and the journey from Haiti across shark-infested waters is fraught with danger, particularly in the hands of greedy smugglers. Five years ago, 100 Haitian immigrants were tossed overboard when an overloaded boat headed for the Bahamas started to founder. All drowned.

Mr Minns said he gets desperate Haitian boat people every six weeks or so, and regularly gets distress calls from Bahamanian sailors who find them floating, lost and starving.

"It's constant," he said. "They put a whole lot of people on board and not enough food and water. They have no navigation aids, or even a compass."

Haiti is suffering political violence in the run-up to next month's often rescheduled parliamentary polls.