Cuban Migration by Sea: Deaths & Disappearances in 2023

Photo: US Coast Guard

Cuban Migration by Sea: Deaths & Disappearances in 2023

9 / agosto / 2023

At least 11 Cubans have lost their lives in the Florida Strait so far this year, while another 54 are missing. While we know two boats and their 37 crew members managed to reach their destination, the illegal routes that people take, feeling like they have no other choice -, are leaving more and more families in distress and mourning.

The first of these unfortunate events took place on January 23, 2023, in front of the Cardenas, Matanzas coast, when a tragic shipwreck took the lives of at least 11 people and left nine missing. The boat, with a crew of approximately 31 people, had left the island the day before from Torrontela, with the objective of reaching US soil. The boat capsized in Cayo Cruz del Padre, and only 11 survivors were rescued.

Then, on June 28, 2023, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted and transferred 14 Cuban migrants and one dead body to the Bahamas, after the US Coast Guard stopped the group. During the intervention, the authorities tried to resuscitate the Cuban who had been unconscious for 30 minutes, but he didn’t survive unfortunately.

Throughout history, the sea route has been the most used by waves of illegal migration between Cuba and the US. It’s estimated that approximately 125,000 Cubans left the country in 1980 with the Mariel boatlift; and 14 years later, in 1994, over 30,000 Cubans were involved in the so-called Rafter Crisis.

The pattern changed in the latest exodus, with the “volcano route“ via Nicaragua becoming the most common route. Between October 2022 and June 2023, 389,082 Cubans were recorded to have reached the US. border. However, attempts to reach US soil via boats – in a precarious condition a lot of the time – didn’t stop. 

Between January 2021 and June 2023, US Border Patrol stopped 7,479 Cuban migrants in the Florida Strait. Numbers shot up towards late 2022, with over 3,000 immigrants making the journey in three months. 

In February 2023, the migration wave by sea diminished again after the Humanitarian Parole Program was implemented and sanctions became harsher for people trying to reach the US by illegal means. People who don’t use legal routes to enter the country and were arrested by US Immigration authorities can be deported back to Cuba, sent to prison in the Bahamas, taken to trial and banned from reentering via legal channels.

Accidents during crossings: disappearances and deaths

Changes in migration patterns can be linked to changes in immigration policy, which also means people looking to leave the country change their strategy. 

An example of this is the greatest migration crisis in Cuba that began with Nicaragua’s decision to waive visa requirements for Cuban citizens, in November 2021. Then, after the US border closed and Cuba was included on the Humanitarian Parole Program in January 2023, the illegal migration flow by land crossing through Central America dwindled significantly.

On the other hand, irregular migration flows come back when the new channels are unable to supply demand. This was the case with Venezuelans after Humanitarian Parole came into effect in October 2022. Five months after its implementation and the low response rate to applicants, mass illegal crossings began again towards the US, with over 40,000 encounters recorded with Border Control in April 2023. With this example, it wouldn’t be crazy to think that something similar might happen with the Cuban people. 

During the journey – by land or sea -, the migrant is exposed to different situations: rescues in situations of potential danger, being arrested by immigration authorities, being intercepted by the US Coast Guard and then being transferred to their counterpart in the Bahamas, or repatriated to Cuba. In other cases, migrants are reported dead or missing. These situations are classified as unfortunate events in the “Migration: a life or death decision” project by elTOQUE, which compiles all of the information presented in this article.

Between January 2021 and July 2023, we at elTOQUE recorded a total of 849 incidents involving Cubans heading for the US along illegal routes, both by land and sea. The majority of these incidents took place in 2022, with a total of 534 episodes, followed by 202 in 2021 and 114 in 2023. 

If you look at the routes used by Cuban migrants, you’ll see that most incidents happened along the sea route, with a total of 649 cases being reported, mostly shipwrecks, interceptions and deportations.

Along the sea crossing that separates the Cuban archipelago from the US, 230 arrests and 228 repatriations have been recorded, which is proof of the US Coast Guard’s constant surveillance and immigration controls. Plus, 60 interceptions and 27 transfers of immigrants have been reported; that is to say, cases where US Coast Guard has arrested a group of Cuban rafters in the Bahamas’ territorial waters and have handed them over to their authorities.

Luckily, 23 rescue operations were carried out that allowed them to save lives in danger, but 25 operations have also been reported where people either went missing or perished. Furthermore, there were four deportation flights between 2021 and 2023, carrying 258 back to Cuba.

The drama of missing Cuban migrants

On February 7, 2021, Yoel Rudy (18 years old) and another nine people left from Alamar, Havana, for the US on a precarious boat. The group never reached their destination. Ever since then, the whereabouts of these Cubans has been unknown.

Similar stories have multiplied in the past three years. Between 2021 and 2023, a total of 271 missing people were identified, 85 of whose families have been contacted. The most common age of migrants is 24-30 years old, followed by people aged 31-38.

Regarding the place where migrants went missing, there is a significant number of cases (177 incidents) where the location was unknown. Nevertheless, 51 disappearances were recorded in the US’ territorial waters, 11 in Cuba’s, 10 in the Bahamas, 7 in the Cayman Islands and 1 in Mexico.

If you look at the provinces where missing migrants came from, the province is unknown in 124 cases. Where a point of origin has been identified, the majority were in Matanzas (46 cases) and in Villa Clara (22 cases). Fewer cases have also been reported in Artemisa, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, Havana and Ciego de Avila. Regarding the municipality of missing migrants, the home municipality is unknown in 162 cases. Municipalities identified include Cardenas, Santa Clara, Corralillo, Caibarien, Playa Baracoa en Bauta, Marti, Altagracia, Matanzas and Nuevitas.

Tragic shipwrecks: lives lost at sea

On September 23, 2022, when Hurricane Ian was sweeping through the region, US Border Patrol officers helped four Cuban migrants who swam to the coastline of Stock Island, after their ship sunk as a result of bad weather. The survivors announced that there were another 23 people who went missing, of whom only 9 were rescued. 

Out of the shipwrecks that took place between 2021 and 2023, 37 Cuban migrants were recorded dead (20 men and 16 women). Even though the age of 16 victims is unknown, at least three were 19 years old, and the rest were between 20-56 years old. The deaths of two children, 3 and 16 years old, and a nine-month-old baby particularly stand out. 

In terms of where these deaths took place, 14 took place in US waters, followed by 13 fatalities in Cuba’s territorial waters. Furthermore, nine fatalities were recorded in unknown places. A death was also reported near the port town of Progreso, located in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. 

This last incident, which involved six people in August 2021, proves that sea routes not only have Florida as a destination, but that different Cuban boats also headed towards the Mexican coast in the latest migration crisis.

The place of origin or residence of 21 migrants who lost their lives is unknown. Out of the places identified, Cardenas particularly stands out, where at least six fatalities came from, and other municipalities such as Güira de Melena, Holguin, Havana, Trinidad, Artemisa and Guane.

Even though there is still a lot of information missing, these figures prove the need to take urgent action to stop tragedies linked to illegal migration routes, as well as to provide support and follow-up with families of those who died and went missing.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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