Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle has shared his sympathy with those affected by Tuesday’s boat tragedy which left three confirmed dead and a dozen others still lost at sea.
The heartbreaking saga saw the 30ft vessel La Belle Michelle capsize early Tuesday morning 12 nautical miles south of St Kitts, near the east coast village of Conaree, with 32 persons on board.
Around 13 passengers remain missing.
“It is quite unfortunate that that has happened. I want to sympathise with the families who would have lost a loved one. We have been hearing and trying to get a grip on what transpired, to try and understand it from a standpoint of who would have authorised it because I heard it left our shores.
“What I also heard is that three persons were supposed to be on board and not over 30.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of the persons were persons from Africa or more so Cameroon,” Pringle said.
Of the 16 people rescued, two were Antiguan, Defence Force officials confirmed, with the rest Africans believed to be migrants in search of a new life. Hundreds of African refugees arrived in Antigua between November and January aboard charter flights from Nigeria, many of them escaping conflict in Cameroon.
La Belle Michelle, believed to have originated from a nearby French territory and brought to Antigua, was reportedly cleared by the Antigua Port Authority for travel to St Thomas with its captain and two other persons.
However, the boat allegedly took a detour to Urlings on Antigua’s south-west coast.
It is alleged that the Africans on the boat were trying to get to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in a bid to ultimately reach the US mainland.
Last year, the government announced an agreement with Nigerian investors to create a new airline, Antigua Airways, touting it as a new link between the Caribbean and West Africa.
In November 2022, the first charter flight arrived, but was soon followed by a series of flights by another carrier which the government claims “took advantage” of the arrangement with Antigua Airways to transport refugees here.
Pringle said the United Progressive Party (UPP) will continue to demand an inquiry into the flights, saying Antigua and Barbuda cannot be seen as a country that facilitates human trafficking.
“We the Opposition would have been raising the issue with the government as it relates to persons who came here with intention to go onto somewhere else and I think this situation clearly shows that what we were asking the government to clarify was basically true as it relates to persons coming to Antigua as the gateway to other places, because it simply means that the situation that just transpired is evidence that they are looking to get out of Antigua as it was not their final destination.
“It’s quite unfortunate because again, here we are with another scandal looming about Antigua and Barbuda. We have to now take control of this situation and the government must accept its responsibility to give the people the necessary information.
“We have to now get serious on this matter so that Antiguans and Barbudans can be proud to call themselves Antiguans and Barbudans and not be fearful of the name branded upon us as a country that facilitates human trafficking, human smuggling, whichever one you want to use.
“I don’t see how they can defend a situation that is now bringing the name of Antigua and Barbuda right down to the mud,” Pringle said.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has pledged to launch a full investigation into the boat tragedy, calling it an “unlawful and dreadful affair”.
Browne said his government will continue to offer refuge in Antigua and Barbuda to the survivors of Tuesday’s events, and that appropriate arrangements will be made for the burial of the deceased.
Efforts, he added, will also be made to contact the relatives to advise them of the tragedy.