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By Brian Ellsworth and Jasper Ward
CORAL HARBOR, The Bahamas (Reuters) - Patrol crafts manned by the Royal Bahamas Defense 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 Bimini, best known for its pristine turquoise seas and wealthy tourists on yachts, less than 50 nautical miles from Florida. In January, 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."
Because the ships are so rudimentary, they frequently are blown off course, Ferguson told Reuters, as he pointed at a digital map inside the boat's cockpit on April 20.
Earlier that day, 132 migrants thought to be from Haiti had been intercepted in Bahamian waters by the U.S. Coast Guard and handed over to Bahamian officials, arrived at Coral Harbour.
More than 1,000 migrants entered the country in October, the largest number on record, said Keith Bell, Minister of Labor and Immigration, said in an interview with Reuters, adding most were believed to be headed toward U.S. shores.
The increase in sea migration comes as the United States faces record high levels of apprehensions at its southern land border, spurring increasingly acrimonious debate over an issue that will likely be a key element of this year's U.S. congressional elections.
Between Oct 1, 2021 and April 17, 2022 Coast Guard crews interdicted 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, the data show.
The Coast Guard did not respond to a request for more detailed statistics.
Around two to three thousand migrants have been entering The Bahamas each year since the pandemic began, said Bell, the minister, 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 Defense 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 because he is not authorized to speak about the issue.
"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.
Some of those intercepted at sea are handed over to Bahamian authorities and returned to Haiti via repatriation flights.
Bahamian migrant rights activists say the country should do more to help them stay in the Bahamas given the dire situation in their home country.
"These people who probably spent the last few dollars of savings to actually make their way to the Bahamas," said Joseph Darville of human rights group Rights Bahamas said. "They're going back to an even more tragic situation."
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(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Jasper Ward in Nassau, additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Aurora Ellis)