Realizations: A Husband and Two Failed Sea Voyages Later

By Ilaria Lanzoni

As early as the 17th Century, the Caribbean island located off the northwest coast of Haiti had come to be known as a pirate haven. In the 21st Century, it is reliving this notoriety because it now is the main departure points for desperate irregular migrants who want to reach The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, or the United States.

Betty is a 28-year-old widow and a mother of two from Tortuga Island, whose husband died in 2011 on one of these attempted journeys to these coveted shores.  She never found out what happened to him. All she knows is that the small rickety boat on which he was travelling never reached its destination, and probably sank somewhere in the sea.

But this tragic incident didn’t stop Betty from attempting two of these treacherous voyages herself –  the first in 2013; and the second a year later in 2014.  

“The latest trip was the hardest for me,” Betty recounts with sorrow.  “We were at sea for several days. The boat engine broke down while we were on the high seas, and a cyclone almost sank us. We were hungry and couldn’t find any food -we could not even wash ourselves or use the toilet. As a woman, it was very tough and uncomfortable for me to be pressed among all those men.”

And after all this, Betty and her companions gained nothing. Betty explains that when they finally reached the Bahamian shore near the city of Exuma, they were immediately arrested by the coast guard and sent back to Haiti.

Betty is fully aware of the fatal risks involved. But she more strongly aware of the pressure that drives her and people like her to undertake these dangerous journeys: the lack local employment  and economic opportunities.

“I am trained as a professional baker, and I used to work in a hotel restaurant, but I quit because my employer stopped paying my salary.  I have two children in school, and without an income it’s very hard to provide for them, especially for their tuition fees.  Both times when I took to the sea, I had to leave my kids with some friends – and that broke my heart,” Betty tearfully says.  

The vehicles to the dreamed-of economic upliftment of people like Betty are far from being dreamboats. Smugglers often use unsafe sailing boats, powered by engines, that do not have  navigation instruments.  Boat captains are often unprepared, untrained, and unable to manage emergency situations or inclement weather.  The dry season, between December and April, is the peak time for irregular voyages.

“It was the last time I tried. The risk is too high and I thank God that I am still alive,” says Betty. “If I could send a message to those who are considering trying, I would tell them not to do it. I tried and it gave me and my family nothing but misery,” she now says with conviction.