Boat tragedy off St. Kitts

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister, Gaston Browne.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister, Gaston Browne.
Gov’t of Antigua and Barbuda

The Antiguan coast guard and crews of vessels sailing near St. Kitts Thursday remained on the lookout for any possible survivors of an overloaded people smuggling vessel which capsized off the island’s coast this week. Police say that 19 of the 32 persons on board the unnamed vessel have been rescued, three confirmed as dead and the remainder are missing in what officials said is one of the deadliest marine tragedies in recent decades.

The group had sailed from Antigua early Tuesday and were apparently en route to the US Virgin Islands where police say many of the African migrants on the vessel were hoping to make it to the US mainland. Most of them were from Cameroon. Local officials say many had come to Antigua in the past six months aboard an upstart air charter service from Africa and had remained in Antigua ever since while authorities dithered about their fate.

Expressing concern and sorrow for the tragedy, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said his government had asked the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration for assistance on how to treat the survivors, though he said Antigua’s hospitality is open to them.

“We have been making every effort to be helpful to these brothers and sisters from Africa who were marooned on Antigua, including by granting them residence and the opportunity to work,” Browne said in a brief national address. “We understand that the majority of persons on board a vessel may be Africans who were part of those who arrived here as tourists but with the intention of migrating to other countries. We will uphold our international obligations against human trafficking and illegal migration by strengthening our domestic institutions and enhancing our cooperation with regional and hemispheric partners,” he added.

The heavily overloaded boat capsized about 12 miles south of St. Kitts with its load of mostly Cameroonians fleeing a five-year war in the country. Antiguan officials say that nearly 900 Africans, most of them from West Africa, had traveled on Antiguan Airways flights to the Eastern Caribbean Island in the past six months and had remained there, drawing up plans to head to the US.

The Observer Newspaper reported on Thursday that a passing cruise ship and other vessels, including one captained by leisure boat captain Thomas Auckland had rushed to the assistance of the vessel after its engines had conked out. The arriving boats had plucked 13 people from the choppy waters, but many remained missing up to Thursday. Officials say their chances of survival are slim. Vessels from nearby Martinique were also involved in the rescue effort as well as an American patrol ship. Auckland said the vessel had few pieces of life saving equipment on board as he pleaded with passengers to avoid traveling on such.