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Haitian food crisis sending refugees to the sea

MONTROUIS, Haiti (Reuters) - Acute hunger and the rising cost of living could send a new wave of boat people from Haiti, where rising food prices set off deadly riots two weeks ago and drove the prime minister from office, officials and analysts say.

A woman buys groceries in a market in Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince April 15, 2008. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

In the small town of Montrouis, about 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, desperate Haitians say they will seize the first opportunity to take a boat toward the U.S. coast to escape the misery that plagues Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

“I will leave with the next boat going to Miami because I can no longer resist this hunger,” Marcel Jonassaint, 34, told Reuters on Tuesday as he sat barefoot near the dock in Montrouis, throwing a handful of small rocks into the ocean.

“I have four children and I don’t have a job and everything is expensive, even for those who are working,” Jonassaint said. “So what do you want me to do?”

Montrouis is a coastal village, overlooking the island of La Gonave, reputed as a key launching point for migrant boats.

“I left earlier this year. Our boat was intercepted in the high seas, but I will try again,” said 29-year-old Rachel Chavanne. “I know some people, like a cousin of mine, who had a successful trip there.

“My turn will also come one day,” she said in her blue dress, with a smile on her face.

Haitian lawmakers fired Prime Minister Jacques Eduard Alexis earlier this month to quell anger over rising food prices that sparked violent protests in Haiti. At least six people died in a week of protests and looting.


The director for the country’s national migration office, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, said since the food crisis, her agency has received more repatriated Haitian boat people in a week than it used to receive in a month or more.

“We have received 212 repatriated last week, we have just received 227 and we are receiving 114 tomorrow,” Pierre told Reuters on Tuesday.

“It is clear that more boat people have been leaving the country and you should expect even more if they cannot find an alternative,” said Pierre, who urged the government and the international community to set up programs to ease the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 972 Haitian migrants at sea since October 1, compared with 376 during the same period last year. But the numbers typically fluctuate and it’s impossible to link any spike in the numbers to any one event such as the recent food riots, Coast Guard Petty Officer Barry Bena said.

“It peaks at certain points and there’s months on end when we get no Haitian vessels at all,” he said.

Pierre said her office is doing its best to persuade suffering Haitians to stay home, but “they believe the only alternative left for them is to leave.”

Migration office employees have been sent to poor, seaside neighborhoods to warn people how risky it is to take to the sea in rustic vessels, but they reply by giving examples of friends and relatives they knew made it to Miami.

“We even show them pictures of sharks eating people, but they would tell us they know many others who reached U.S soil and who are now sending money to relatives left in Haiti,” said Pierre.

There are frequent reports of drownings when unsafe and overloaded migrant vessels capsize or break apart while trying to reach the United States and the Bahamas. A suspected migrant smuggling boat capsized off the Bahamas during the weekend and rescue crews recovered three survivors and 15 bodies, many of them Haitians.

Human rights activist Renan Hedouville said Haitians are leaving because the government and the rest of the world have turned a blind eye to the hungry.

“The universal right to have access to food has been neglected and denied to so many people,” Hedouville said. “That’s why people in desperate straits are taking to the sea, risking their lives and seeking a solution which is not really one.”

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Sandra Maler)

For more stories on global food price rises, please see here