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Each year hundreds of Haitians flee the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and attempt to reach U.S. by sea.

Some will cross the 80-mile stretch from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, while others try to make it to South Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates up to 3,000 Haitians attempt either route each year, but most are sent back.

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No matter the route, many die. One of the latest tragedy occurred in May of this year where a boat with about 150 passengers capsized off of the coast of Bahamas and 30 drowned.

Each year hundreds of Haitians flee the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and attempt to reach U.S. by sea.

Some will cross the 80-mile stretch from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, while others try to make it to South Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates up to 3,000 Haitians attempt either route each year, but most are sent back.

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No matter the route, many die. One of the latest tragedy occurred in May of this year where a boat with about 150 passengers capsized off of the coast of Bahamas and 30 drowned.

The U.S. Coast Guard released on Thursday a PSA in English and Creole that warns Haitians not to take to sea to avoid the danger. It will air in South Florida and in Caribbean islands.

The video features that increasingly ubiquitous style that uses a series of close shots of individuals saying a few words of a larger message, which are edited together. In this case, it’s Haitian community leaders delivering the following statement:

“Some will tell you that being smuggled is safe. Some will tell you there is nothing to fear. They are wrong.”

There’s a huge economic motivation for Haitians to move to the U.S. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and Haitians living in the States are able to send about $1.5 billion a year in remittances to help families who stayed behind.

Many of whom are still struggling with devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake. Much of their infrastructure hasn’t been rebuilt and about $9 billion in financial aid that was promised has not yet come in.

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Jean Souffrant, the program director at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami was one of the spokespeople in the ad.

“I truly feel it’s my responsibility to elevate the message that life is too important to risk,” said Souffrant, who arrived in Florida when he was 11 years old.

What led him to believe he needed to speak out on this issue was an encounter with a family in his church who lost their two-year-old child when making the journey.

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The PSA refers to smugglers as being part of the problem. Souffrant believes many vulnerable families are being taken advantage of and that smugglers must be stopped.

“At the end of the day, the smugglers already have their money,” Souffrant said. “They get away with murder. They don’t have to think about what they’ve done.”

The U.S. Coast Guard often collaborates with Immigration Customs Enforcement on capturing possible smugglers. In 2009, ICE investigated a Haitian man for smuggling 30 migrants, 10 of whom died after another boat capsized.

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But the Haitians who decide to navigate the treacherous waters do so in search of a better life in the U.S., and not simply because a smuggler made them. This conflicts Souffrant who says he understands where the desperation that leads to taking such a big risk comes from, but still thinks the trip is not worth it.

“A big community issue is people don’t feel they have other options,” Souffrant said. “But I joined the video because at the cost of desperation, at the cost of looking for something better, you end up losing everything. Not to say the legal way is the perfect way, but it’s a start.”

Pierre Michaud, a retired Haitian resident in South Florida, saw the PSA and recalled the days he served on a Department of Defense task force as a liaison and rescuer of Haitian migrants.

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“Sometimes I wonder how they made it so far. When we intercepted the boats, these people were in dire need of mental, physical help,” Michaud recounted. “It's not a pleasant sight to see the conditions these people were in.”

But he knew exactly why they took such a risk.

“At the time there was political turmoil, there was a legitimate reason to come,” he said about his mission days during the 1990s. “I rescued some young people from Haiti and brought them here. These people are graduating as doctors and lawyers. They made their study and had a chance at something they wouldn't in their whole life living in the mountains of Haiti.”

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The U.S. Coast Guard released on Thursday a PSA in English and Creole that warns Haitians not to take to sea to avoid the danger. It will air in South Florida and Caribbean islands.

The video features a meseage deleiverd in that now familar style of having a group South Florida community leaders who state:

“Some will tell you that being smuggled is safe. Some will tell you there is nothing to fear. They are wrong.”

Advertisement

There’s a huge economic motivation for Haitians to move to the U.S. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and Haitians living in the States are able to send about $1.5 billion a year in remittances to help families who stayed behind.

Many of whom are still struggling with devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake. Much of their infrastructure hasn’t been rebuilt and about $9 billion in financial aid that was promised has not yet come in.

Jean Souffrant, the program director at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami was one of the spokespeople in the ad.

Advertisement

“I truly feel it’s my responsibility to elevate the message that life is too important to risk,” said Souffrant, who arrived in Florida when he was 11 years old.

What led him to believe he needed to speak out on this issue was an encounter with a family in his church who lost their two-year-old child when making the journey.

The PSA refers to smugglers as being part of the problem. Souffrant believes many vulnerable families are being taken advantage of and that smugglers must be stopped.

Advertisement

“At the end of the day, the smugglers already have their money,” Souffrant said. “They get away with murder. They don’t have to think about what they’ve done.”

The U.S. Coast Guard often collaborates with Immigration Customs Enforcement on capturing possible smugglers. In 2009, ICE investigated a Haitian man for smuggling 30 migrants, 10 of whom died after another boat capsized.

But the Haitians who decide to navigate the treacherous waters do so in search of a better life in the U.S., and not simply because a smuggler made them. This conflicts Souffrant who says he understands where the desperation that leads to taking such a big risk comes from, but still thinks the trip is not worth it.

Advertisement

“A big community issue is people don’t feel they have other options,” Souffrant said. “But I joined the video because at the cost of desperation, at the cost of looking for something better, you end up losing everything. Not to say the legal way is the perfect way, but it’s a start.”

Pierre Michaud, a retired Haitian resident in South Florida, saw the PSA and recalled the days he served on a Department of Defense task force as a liaison and rescuer of Haitian migrants.

“Sometimes I wonder how they made it so far. When we intercepted the boats, these people were in dire need of mental, physical help,” Michaud recounted. “It's not a pleasant sight to see the conditions these people were in.”

But he knew exactly why they took such a risk.

“At the time there was political turmoil, there was a legitimate reason to come,” he said about his mission days during the 1990s. “I rescued some young people from Haiti and brought them here. These people are graduating as doctors and lawyers. They made their study and had a chance at something they wouldn't in their whole life living in the mountains of Haiti.”

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Michaud said the Haitian community in the U.S. are split as far as how they feel about taking the dangerous journey.

“Some will speak to the fact, why not give Haitians the chance like they did the Cubans, which I agree,” he said.

But others don’t think the risk is necessary. Michaud recommends that Haitians only make the trip if their lives are being threatened by political or criminal persecution. Otherwise, he says, Haitians have a good reason to stay home.

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“There's always hope in Haiti, Michaud said. “We're very resilient. As long as we have something going for us, we wouldn't embark on a suicide mission.”