By Robert A Emmanuel
The saga surrounding African migrants left stranded in Antigua after arriving here on charter flights took a tragic turn yesterday, after three persons were confirmed dead off the coast of St Kitts.
Early Tuesday morning, Observer received reports of a capsized vessel named Jenna B which had been carrying around 30 people. Of the 16 rescued, two were Antiguan, Defence Force officials confirmed, with the rest Africans believed to be migrants in search of a new life.
Around a dozen more passengers were still missing up to last night.
The 30ft vessel, believed to have originated from one of the nearby French territories, 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.
Observer travelled to Urlings yesterday but was unable to confirm whether any Africans or the boat had been seen by local fishermen or residents in the area.
However, fishermen in Urlings did allude to the fact that the shores in the area are often unsupervised, especially late at night, and thus they are widely considered to be “free ports”.
Meanwhile, St Kitts media revealed that the boat was found capsized 12 nautical miles south of St Kitts, near the east coast village of Conaree, around 40 nautical miles from Antigua.
Observeralso confirmed that the boat was found with persons clinging to the hull by a passing luxury vessel.
Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force Chief of Defence Staff Colonel Telbert Benjamin told Observer, “We have confirmation that there are 16 people in St Kitts in the custody of the authorities, two of whom are Antiguan, and the others are of African origin,” Colonel Benjamin revealed. He later confirmed three bodies had been recovered to date.
Colonel Benjamin also revealed that the St Kitts Coast Guard, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre from Martinique, as well as a number of sailing vessels, assisted in the rescue efforts.
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.
In a statement yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Gaston Browne expressed “deep sorrow” at the loss of life and distress suffered by persons aboard the vessel.
He said the government would launch “a full investigation into the circumstances of this unlawful and dreadful affair, including the involvement of any citizens and residents”.
Browne added, “In the meantime, my government will also continue to offer refuge in Antigua and Barbuda to the survivors of today’s events, and we will make appropriate arrangements for the burial of the deceased.
“We will also make every effort to contact their relatives to advise them of this heart-breaking tragedy.”
This latest development in the African migrant story continues to fuel the concerns of citizens resulting from the sudden influx of Africans, mainly from Cameroon and Nigeria, between November and January.
Last year, the government announced an agreement with a Nigerian printing company, Marvelous Mike Printing Press Ltd to create a new airline, Antigua Airways, touting it as a regional link between the Caribbean and West African countries.
In November 2022, the first chartered flight between Antigua and Nigeria arrived, but was soon followed by a series of flights by another chartered airline which the government claims “took advantage” of the arrangement with Antigua Airways to transport Africans trying to escape conflict in Cameroon at hefty prices.
The opposition United Progressive Party has long called for an investigation into the debacle, especially as many Africans were initially without accommodations and with several claiming that Antigua was not their final destination.
The government previously tried to claim that any criticism of the Africans was “xenophobic,” alluding to the idea that opposition politicians would not be so outraged if the African travellers were Caucasian.
However, a few days after the general elections, the Attorney General and the government announced a suspension of all chartered flights from Africa citing national security concerns.
This concern also included that Antigua Airways was unable to, at that point, be granted an Air Operator Certificate (AOC).
Recently, the Prime Minister was heard on his radio station claiming Antigua Airways was “practically a defunct entity because we [the administration] are very gun-shy about continuing those charters”.
Last week, the government announced that it had reached out to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration for assistance with the African migrants.