Rescuers in the Bahamas have found the bodies of 17 Haitian migrants thought to have died after their vessel capsized in rough seas during a “suspected human smuggling operation,” the country’s leader said.
The bodies of 15 females, a male and an infant were found in the water after the Royal Bahamas Police Force and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force responded to reports of a boating incident seven miles off New Providence just after 1 a.m. on Sunday, Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said in a statement.
Twenty-five people were rescued and turned over to health officials for monitoring, but additional people are presumed to be missing, with search and recovery operations continuing, Davis said.
“Preliminary investigations suggest that a twin-engine speed boat left a docking facility off West Bay Street around 1 a.m. with approximately 60 people on board. It is believed that their final destination was Miami, Florida,” the Prime Minister said.
“Law enforcement officials will update you on the criminal matter as well as other rescue and recovery efforts. However, I would like to convey the condolences of my government and the people of The Bahamas to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragedy,” the Prime Minister said.
Davis said his government has always warned against dangerous voyages and that they have increased surveillance on land and sea, and intensified patrols.
“We take this opportunity to strongly condemn the organization of smuggling operations which risk human life and compromise our national security. Those found to be involved will face prosecution,” he said. “I understand the situation that many of these migrants face that would encourage them to take such great risk. We however appeal to those considering making such a voyage, not to.”
Bahamas Police Commissioner Clayton Fernander told reporters Sunday that an estimated 50 to 60 people were believed to have been on board the 20-ft speedboat and that the search for survivors or bodies was ongoing.
He said two Bahamian men were among the survivors and were being questioned in police custody. The men were known to police “for various offenses,” he said.
Immigration Minister Keith Bell said 20 people had been taken to a detention center and were being interviewed.
“Those persons have indicated that they would have paid somewhere between $3,000 and $8,000 for this fateful journey,” Bell said.
Haiti has suffered from violent instability for years. After former President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July last year, his successor, Ariel Henry, vowed to improve security. Nevertheless, kidnappings and gang violence continue to plague the Caribbean nation.
Haiti has been in turmoil for years, but the violence escalated dramatically since Moïse’s assassination. His killing was followed in August by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that killed thousands.
In addition to the security situation and political crisis, Haiti is also suffering from high inflation levels and food insecurity. The World Food Programme estimates that 1.3 million Haitians are at risk of severe hunger.
CNN’s Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.