Volume No. 1 Issue No. 98 - Monday April 09, 2007
British Islands on new smuggling route
Andrew Selsky - AP
NORMAN ISLAND, British Virgin Islands -- Abandoned by a smuggler on a pebbly beach, 49 hungry and thirsty migrants hid out for days amid a tangle of trees and brush. Then a scouting party returned with devastating news: They weren't in America.
The illegal migrants _ 47 Haitians and two Dominicans, including two babies _ were hoping they had reached the U.S. Virgin Islands, where travelers can hop on a domestic flight to Miami without passing through immigration checkpoints.
Instead, they were dumped on Norman Island, one of the British Virgins _ three miles of open water short of U.S. soil, with nothing to get them there and no population to blend into.
"We gave them food and water, and over the next four days more of them came out of the bush," said Tom Warner, who usually tends to yachters at Pirates Bight Bar and Restaurant, the only business on uninhabited Norman Island. "The 1-year-old was definitely thirsty. ... I gave him a container of water and that baby just wouldn't let go of it."
Once a way-station for pirates, the British Virgin Islands _ comprised of the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Anegada, as well as more than 50 smaller islands _ are increasingly attractive to Caribbean smugglers carrying illegal migrants to the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Cubans are the elite migrants because unlike all the others, the U.S. "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy allows them to avoid deportation and request asylum if they can reach U.S. soil. And they've discovered that the Virgin Islands corridor provides a practical alternative to the heavily guarded Florida Straits or the rough Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which last year became a popular route.
From October through January, 126 Cuban migrants used the new route to reach the U.S. Virgin Islands _ more than double the number that landed during the same period a year ago, said Capt. James E. Tunstall, commander of U.S. Coast Guard for the eastern Caribbean. By comparison, Cubans caught trying to sneak past the cutter patrolling the Mona Passage have declined by 40 percent.
On Saturday, authorities detained 28 Haitian migrants, including a baby, who were wandering in bushes after being dropped off on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands by a boat that a resident spotted with a night-vision scope.
"If you squeeze this end of the balloon, it bulges elsewhere," Tunstall said in an interview at the Coast Guard base in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "It's the nature of our work."
The new route swings deep into the eastern Caribbean and runs northwest along the Leeward Island chain before heading to the British Virgin Islands. The migrants, mostly from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, generally fly to the island of Dominica, then hook up with smugglers who take them on chartered sailboats to U.S. territory under cover of darkness, according to Chief Inspector St. Clair Amory of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force.
"These persons who actually organize these operations are making big money," Amory said.
Cubans, who often have access to cash from relatives on the U.S. mainland, generally pay $3,000-$3,500 for the sea voyage, while Haitians and Dominicans pay $2,000-$2,500, he said.
Authorities are having a hard time choking off the new route because the distance between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands is as little as a mile in places. A dinghy can cross in minutes, and smuggling boats blend in with tourist yachts.
Amory once alerted the Coast Guard to search a boat heading into U.S. waters, and they caught a group of Bolivians who had flown to the British Virgin Islands and were trying to sail to Puerto Rico. Such cooperation is critical, officials say.
"It's a needle in a haystack if you don't have actionable intelligence," Tunstall said.
The British territory has tightened immigration regulations and is building a detention center for illegal migrants, aiming to prevent them from using their islands as a springboard to America.
"We have had Nigerians. We have had Jamaicans, Dominicans _ a whole lot of different nationalities of persons basically trying to get to the U.S Virgin Islands," Amory said in the capital of Road Town on the most populous island of Tortola.
The British Virgins are so close to America and so dependent on tourism that they use the dollar, not the pound. But residents of the offshore banking and tourist haven drive on the left on roads that climb through forested mountains overlooking the turquoise sea, and they favor Pusser's Rum, the same blend served on British warships for centuries.
The differences between the British and U.S. territories don't stop there, as the marooned Haitian and Dominican migrants discovered when they landed in late February. Within days, immigration authorities flew them home, back to the poverty and violence they fled.
"It's really hard on us because we know what they're running from ... but we've got our jobs to do," said Constable Stepphen Gilbert, who patrols the territory's 59 square miles of sea and shore in a new police boat. "We cannot keep them. But it's really hard, man, especially with the children."