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Miami Herald - Bahamas returns Haitian migrants; solution to deaths at sea remains elusive

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Location: Unknown

By Jacqueline Charles

Survivors from a rickety wooden sailboat, which ran aground last week while ferrying undocumented Haitian migrants through the Bahamas, are scheduled to be repatriated to Haiti Tuesday, Bahamian authorities said.

At least 30 Haitians died in the tragedy. The 111 survivors are among 342 Haitians who will be flown on three chartered Bahamasair flights to Port-au-Prince, pending receipt of landing permits from the Haitian government. The group also includes 56 stranded Haitians who were rescued off a small cay north of the capsized boat.

The latest repatriations come as the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the United States all report spikes in the past year in Haitian migrants trying to make it to their shores and as immigration and humanitarian experts try to find solutions to curb the dangerous tide.

Two weeks ago, the International Organization for Migration submitted a proposal to Haiti's Interior Ministry to create income-generating opportunities along Haiti's impoverished north coast. The two-year, $4.5 million program would provide grants to help Haitians start small businesses in hopes of discouraging them from leaving on boats, and encouraging those living illegally in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos to return, said Drazan Rozic, an IOM program manager.

But Rozic concedes that even if the Haitian government makes the program a priority -- which he hopes -- it will depend on international donor support. Just recently, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration opted not to renew a $2.6 million grant to IOM for a program that reintegrated Haitians intercepted at sea and returned to the north. The program, which sought to address the root causes of high migration flows, ended in October after funds ran out.

An August 2011 IOM survey found that the main reasons for the migrations were poverty and unemployment, coupled with lack of opportunities to improve the quality of life, Rozic said.

Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, who is seeking urgent talks with the Haitian government, said Haitian migration "comes in waves. "

It's a mistake, he said, for anyone to think that nearly four years after a devastating earthquake, "the situation in the north of Haiti has improved in its economy to keep people at home... the problem of extreme poverty remains; absolute desperation remains. The international community cannot take its eyes off Haiti, and the solutions remain complex and long-term," he said.

U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said the increase "showcases that more work needs to be done to provide a better future for Haitians.

"By providing stability, economic independence, job opportunities, and promoting educational success, the government of Haiti can allow the people of Haiti to rise up from poverty," she said.

There has been some rebuilding since the quake and the number of tent dwellers has dropped by 80 percent to less than 300,000. But higher prices and political gridlock continue to fuel anti-government demonstrations.

Another is planned for Thursday.

"The government doesn't have a lot of means and we can't create jobs for everyone. But we are working to create the conditions for people to invest and create jobs," said Haiti Foreign Minister Pierre-Richard Casimir.

Still, Haitians are increasingly losing their lives at sea. In addition to those who died in last week's capsizing, last month three Haitians went missing in the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico and four Haitian women drowned in Government Cut near Miami Beach in October after a fishing boat bringing them to the U.S. capsized.

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