by Greg Beckett, author of There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince
On March 31, 2019, a small twin-engine outboard boat full of Haitian migrants capsized off the coast of the Turks and Caicos Islands. At least 17 people died. More than a dozen people were rescued by the US Coast Guard and the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police. It is unclear how many other people were on board. Those saved by the rescue operation will likely be repatriated, as part of a long-standing practice by the United States to interdict would-be migrants at sea.
The boat was making a kannté voyage—a term used in Haiti to refer to overseas migrant trips made on either sailboats or, more commonly these days, small motorboats. Haitians have been making such voyages for decades, as migrants risk fortune and fate in a desperate attempt to make it to the United States, or even to the Bahamas or other Caribbean destinations, where they hope to find temporary work in construction or seasonal agriculture. These migrants are all trying to escape what they call lavi chè, the expensive life or the high cost of living.
In recent months, such voyages are on the rise. In January, a boat with 70 migrants was interdicted by the US Coast Guard and sent back to Haiti. In February, another migrant boat sank off the Bahamian coast, killing 28 people. Perhaps sensing a trend, the US Embassy in Haiti issued a statement billed as a public service announcement. The statement described the disaster as “another tragic loss of life” and warned Haitians that “no journey is worth risking lives—please urge families and communities: Illegal migrant & smuggling operations are dangerous and frequently end in tragedy.” Others saw the boat disasters in a different way. For example, leading Haitian journalist Frantz Duval wrote in the country’s main paper, Le Nouvelliste, that the migrant deaths were “on the conscience of all Haitian society,” and that the migrants died because the current government has abdicated its responsibility to govern.
If you ask people who go lòt bò dlo (overseas) about the risks entailed, or about why they make such voyages, they will tell you about the possibility of drowning or the danger of sharks. They will tell you, too, of the other risks, of being caught at sea by the US Coast Guard, caught and then brought back to Haiti. They will tell you about what might befall them on the other side of the water, the difficulties of finding work, the precarious working conditions, and the fear and anxiety that comes with being without papers, being undocumented, being labelled an “illegal alien.” Or of the racism and exploitation they will confront on the other side. And if you ask them why they go, they might say that they are doing what everyone else in Haiti is doing—chache lavi, looking for life. They might say they see no future for themselves in Haiti, or that “there is no more Haiti.” Or they might say they are suffering, that they live with constant hunger (grangou) and insecurity (ensekirite). They might tell you they have to go so that they can be responsible (responsab) for their family, so that they can send money back to help keep their households afloat. They might even tell you that they are already dead, so what does it matter?
Migrants risk the seas for the same reason they come to Port-au-Prince and end up in the vast slums of the city. As I show in my book, There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, such migrants are fleeing ecological devastation. They are pushed out by the collapse of a peasant economy that cannot compete with the massive amount of foreign food that floods into the country through open trade borders or through international aid. They are trying to make money any way that they can. They are looking for life, but they know, as all such migrants know, that they are just as likely to find death. Decades of neoliberal economic policies and structural adjustment programs have left them in a desperate situation. They must live every day with the material fact that their lives have become unlivable, with the knowledge that they are not just poor but that they are drowning already in debt and dependency. In their homes and in the markets, they see the dictates of a global system that threatens their survival. It appears in the prices of basic goods, in lavi chè, the high cost of living, in the high cost of soaring prices and declining monetary value, in the inflationary dynamics of a world that guarantees more disasters to come in the future.
The Caribbean is often called one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. What does that mean? Presumably, it refers to the high risk of natural hazards, like hurricanes, or to the fact that the islands in the region comprise one of the most transformed environments in the world. But it also means that disaster has become ordinary—part of the infrastructure of everyday life. Disasters emerge in profoundly ordinary moments. They appear in a capsized boat and a drowned or missing family member. Or in a road that has washed away, cutting off your village or neighborhood from other roads. They take elementary form, in the wind that generates hurricanes and the rains that bring floods, in the heat that bakes the ground and kills the crops during times of drought, in the fires burning charcoal and fuelwood, or the bigger fires that burn through houses and communities when a kerosene or paraffin lamp sparks too much or is knocked over.
In Haiti, disasters are ordinary because the contradictions that give rise to them have become essential features of social life. Just as a warming ocean will make hurricanes stronger, so too will stark inequality and exploitation make them deadlier. It is easy to see this in cases of extraordinary disasters, when the scale of damage extends to thousands or millions of people, to whole islands. But it is equally true of those smaller disasters, those ordinary ones like a capsized boat and the death of migrants forced to leave their homes and to look for life overseas.
Greg Beckett is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Western University in Ontario.