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If stones could float


Updated on 6 September 2007[1]

Every now and then something happens which helps to shed a little light on the way our newspapers distinguish between what counts as news and what doesn’t. Consider how the British press handled two very different disappearances, the nights of 3 and 4 May 2007.

In early May two British doctors, Kate and Gerry McCann, were on holiday in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. The McCanns say that on the night of 3 May they went out to dinner at a tapas bar near their hotel, leaving their three-year old daughter Madeleine behind with their two other young children. At some point that evening, Madeleine was apparently abducted or otherwise removed from their unlocked apartment, and she hasn’t been seen since.

Nobody who lived within reach of the British or indeed European media in the spring of 2007 is likely to forget its extraordinary response to this event. Madeleine McCann’s disappearance remained one of the lead stories in most of the British papers for a full week, and immediately became the object of obsessive national attention. The phrase ‘Madeleine McCann’ appears in no less than 164 articles published by the Guardian newspaper between 4 May and 13 July — an average of two or three articles per day. Tabloid papers like News of the World and The Sun still strive to outdo each other in their commitment to ‘leave no stone unturned’, to use the slogan adopted by the official website of ‘Madeleine’s Fund’ (a site that apparently received 58 million hits and 16,000 messages of support within 48 hours of its launch on 16 May). Over the summer, author J.K. Rowling and her publishers instructed every shop in the world that wants to sell the latest Harry Potter book to put up posters of Madeleine asking ‘Have you seen this child?’ International coverage of the saga reached a new pitch of excitement and intensity when in early September 2007 Kate and Gerry McCann were themselves added to the short list of suspects.

The night after the world’s most visible missing person vanished, early on 4 May 2007, around 80 other people disappeared when a boat sank in the Caribbean. This time British authorities were directly involved in the disaster, and there is good reason to suspect that the deaths may have been the result of criminal negligence, if not of deliberate police violence. Some of the dead may have been eaten by sharks; many were women and children.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how our media might have reacted if the victims of such a calamity had themselves been British. The disappearance of even a single white yachtsman is always guaranteed a certain amount of press coverage. But what if the dead are poor and black? What if they come from a place like Haiti? How many stones might we expect newspapers like the Guardian or Independent to overturn in their coverage of such a story?

Before answering this question it may be worth remembering what actually happened the night of 3-4 May.

Early on Tuesday 1 May, a 30-foot sloop set out from the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haïtien, headed for the neighbouring British territory the Turks and Caicos Islands. US and UK officials estimate that the sloop was crammed with around 160 people. These were people who had finally decided to abandon the certainty of crippling destitution at home in exchange for a one-in-a-million shot at precarious low-wage employment abroad. They were people who lived on the edge of starvation, people whose children had little prospect of ever going to school or getting a job. Haiti is a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population ‘lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% — four and a half million people — live on less than $1 per day.'[2] Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

Every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’ has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and its allies in the international community. As a result, in a normal year, several thousand of Haiti’s most desperate or most reckless citizens try to escape this misery by sea. Most of them first need to sell whatever few possessions they and their families might have accumulated in order to pay the hundreds of dollars that traffickers charge for passage on a boat to the US or to another Caribbean island. The story of one of these passengers, 36-year-old Jean-Baptiste Metellus, sounds fairly typical. Married and the father of two children, until the day he boarded the sloop on 1 May Metellus earned around three dollars a day selling lottery tickets in the aptly named town of Trou-du-Nord, a place where unemployment probably exceeds the national average of 70%. Metellus’ brother told the Associated Press that Jean-Baptiste boarded the boat in the hope of joining a godfather living in the Turks and Caicos islands.[3]

The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are a small British overseas territory, the sort of place that until 1981 went by the more accurate name of ‘Crown colony’. They are located south-east of the Bahamas, a little more than a hundred miles north of Haiti. London is responsible for their security, defence and foreign affairs. The TCI Coast Guard operates in conjunction with the United Kingdom Security Advisory Team and Maritime Training Unit (UKSAT MTU), an organisation whose stated purpose is to ‘protect the UK from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime[s]’, and to enhance the ‘security and good governance of the UK’s Overseas Territories.'[4] Among other things, UKSAT personnel in the British Caribbean offer training courses that focus ‘predominantly on maritime skill development and counter-narcotics operations.’ Legal TCI residents are full British citizens, although a large proportion of the local ‘belongers’ take advantage of their island’s much-hyped offshore status to avoid paying full rates of British tax. Per capita income in the TCI is around $10,000. Famous for their exclusive hotels and ‘breathtaking beaches’, according to online tourist brochures the TCI have become ‘one of the most popular destinations for Hollywood Stars’.

In recent years, the Turks and Caicos Islands have also become a popular destination for impoverished Haitian emigrants. In the TCI as in Florida or the Dominican Republic, it is legal and illegal Haitian workers who take on many of the poorly paid jobs in construction, street-cleaning and hotel maintenance. As the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office notes, since they are ‘less than 24 hours sailing time from Haiti, TCI has attracted steady numbers of Haitians, in un-seaworthy sloops, looking for employment in the TCI tourism and construction industries. With a tiny population and limited resources, TCI have welcomed this source of cheaper labour’ — while at the same time resenting the ‘social strains’ attendant on its local accommodation.[5] As the numbers of would-be migrants have risen in recent years, so too has the violence of the police response. Among other incidents, TCI ‘residents recall that back in 1998 another boatload of escaping Haitians died off the shore here, after the police fired at the boat.'[6]

The TCI first agreed to let the US Coast Guard use one of their beaches to ‘process’ Haitian refugees back in June 1994.[7] Both the US and UK governments have long treated Haitian migrants with exceptional severity. Whereas Clinton’s so-called ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy still facilitates the naturalisation of many Cuban emigrants, Haitian migrants to the US cannot even apply for the ‘temporary protected status’ occasionally enjoyed by the citizens of countries like Honduras or El Salvador when their homes are threatened by war or natural disaster. Almost without exception, the US Coast Guard immediately and automatically repatriates every Haitian migrant or asylum-seeker that it manages to intercept at sea. Back in February 2004, when the US helped to engineer the violent overthrow of Haiti’s most popular modern president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was careful to station three of its own Coast Guard cutters less than a mile off the shore of the capital Port-au-Prince. Around the same time, lest anyone forget where his government stood regarding its international obligations to grant asylum to refugees fleeing political persecution, president George Bush reminded reporters that ‘I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any [Haitian] refugee that attempts to reach our shore.'[8]

Around two in the morning of Friday 4 May 2007, the Cap-Haïtien sloop was intercepted by the TCI’s 50-foot police launch Sea Quest, about a mile south of Providenciales Island. What happened next is the subject of some controversy. A reporter from the Associated Press spoke to half a dozen of the sloop’s surviving passengers, finding that ‘they all gave the same story’.[9] The survivors say that the TCI launch rammed the boat, and then tried to tow it further out to sea. One of them described the sequence in some detail.

I was on the prow at the front of the boat and I was able to follow everything that occurred. It all happened as we left the channel to approach land. We were, in fact, approximately five minutes away from [the Turks and Caicos island of] Providenciales. At that moment, a coastguard ship appeared on the left side of our boat. Then it passed us on the right. It wanted to prevent us at all costs from reaching the shore. Everyone was getting their belongings together, and getting ready to disembark from the boat. When the coastguards realised that everyone was getting ready to disembark, they rammed our boat. Twice. [… Then] they tried to tow us out into the channel, out to open sea.[10]

Moments later the bow was dragged under and the sloop capsized. Many of its passengers were unable to swim. The luckiest survivors claim that TCI police left them waiting in the water for around fifteen minutes; others ‘alleged that police beat them with wooden batons when they tried to scramble aboard the patrol boat from the shark-filled waters.'[11] AP went on to note, on 8 May, that ‘reports about the alleged involvement of the Turks and Caicos boat [in the disaster] have taken days to come out because the survivors are locked in a jail-like detention centre and barred from speaking to the media.'[12]

As for the TCI police, they initially claimed that the boat had already capsized before they arrived on the scene. A little later they changed their story (after some gentle prompting from US Coast Guard personnel who assisted in the rescue operation), to acknowledge that the boat sank as they tried to tow it into port through ‘heavy seas’. Between them, the TCI and US coast guards then managed to pick up a total of 78 survivors. 60 dead bodies were also recovered at the same time, though the actual death-toll was probably closer to 80 people. ‘Some of the recovered bodies were missing limbs,’ noted the Washington Post, ‘apparently from shark attacks.'[13]

It was the worst disaster to befall Haitian migrants in recent years.

In line with standard procedures, after spending almost a week in detention the survivors were forcibly transferred back to Cap-Haïtien on 10 May. The badly decomposed bodies of the dead followed them home ten days later. In a final insult the corpses were dumped into a mass grave before relatives had time to identify and reclaim them.[14] The body of Jean-Baptiste Metellus went into the trench with the others. In a country where life is so desperately cheap, many Haitians take funerals very seriously. After taking the bus to Cap-Haïtien in order to retrieve his remains, Metellus’ brothers had to return to his wife empty-handed. ‘We never would have wanted him to be buried this way,’ one of them told the AP. ‘Now he’s gone and he didn’t leave anything for his children.'[15]

A statement published by the Turks and Caicos government on 11 May expressed sympathy with relatives of the deceased but explained that ‘the boat was suspected of containing illegal migrants and, in line with standard practice, the police boat took the sloop in tow, in order to bring it in to South Dock, Providenciales.’ Pending the publication of their full report in August, investigators sent from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the UK’s Department of Transport ‘concluded that while the two vessels had touched, there was no evidence to support claims that the migrants’ boat had been rammed.’ Richard Mull, the lead British investigator, acknowledged that ‘the decision to tow the overcrowded sloop in stormy seas without giving the migrants life jackets also raised concerns, but [he] said Turks and Caicos police were following the standard operating procedure.'[16]

A government that refuses to contemplate prosecution of its police when they execute an innocent bystander like Jean Charles de Menezes (in July 2005) isn’t likely to worry too much about standard operating procedures that kill people who are plainly guilty of being both black and poor. Anyone with even a little experience of boats knows, however, that when you tow an unstable and heavily-laden vessel through heavy seas it’s virtually guaranteed to sink. ‘When it’s done that way’, a spokesman from the US Coast Guard admitted, ‘it takes almost nothing for a disaster to occur. A strong wind or a sea swell or people moving around can capsize a boat in an instant.'[17] In their initial report, the British MAIB investigators more or less admitted the same thing. ‘This type of sloop with this number of passengers is inherently unsafe’, the report notes, and such boats become especially unstable ‘when the majority of the passengers [come out] on deck. This movement of passengers starts as the sloops near their destinations, but is also triggered when they are intercepted by the authorities.’ Consequently, MAIB suggests, ‘the sloop would have suffered a major reduction in stability as the passengers moved from the hold onto the deck following the intercept.’ Had most of the passengers come out on deck, as is likely, this would have caused the sloop’s ‘stability to progressively diminish to almost zero. In this condition, it would have taken only the smallest of movements of the passengers towards one side, or another stimulus, to cause the vessel to capsize.'[18]

There may be some grounds for questioning a government that defends such a procedure as ‘standard’, especially one that is prepared to apply it to scores of terrified and exhausted people in shark-filled waters in the middle of the night, without first trying to off-load any of them onto another vessel and without providing them with life-preservers or assistance of any kind.

But what sort of questions have been raised about this incident in the British press? As far as I can tell neither the Daily Telegraph nor the Guardian nor the Sunday Times nor the Financial Times have ever yet mentioned the event. The Observer, the Sunday paper that belongs to the Guardian group, has so far devoted a grand total of 135 words to the story, clipped from a single Associated Press wire and published on 6 May 2007.[19] The Independent has likewise published just one short article about the capsizing, a full week after the story broke.[20] The Times dispatched it in a single two-sentence snippet from the AP on 11 May 2007.

The full Times coverage of the catastrophe reads as follows: ‘Survivors of a sunken boat carrying 160 Haitian migrants said that a Turks and Caicos coastal patrol rammed their vessel, towed it into deeper water and abandoned them. At least 61 people died.’ End of story. So far no British newspaper can be bothered to investigate the truth of such claims, let alone consider the implications of this indifference.


* * * Post-script, 6 September 2007 * * *

‘If Stones Could Float’ was written in the middle of July. Some readers may be curious to know a little more about how British reactions to the May 4th incident have evolved over the past few weeks.

On 1 August 2007 the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) released, as announced, its final report on the ‘tragic accident’ of 4 May. It is available online. MAIB’s investigation produced a detailed and informative 50-page document, complete with an arresting set of photographs, maps, and some fairly technical information about the various boats and other ‘assets’ involved.

MAIB concludes that while there is no clear evidence to suggest that the Turks and Caicos launch Sea Quest deliberately rammed the Haitian sloop, it seems that the hulls ‘bumped as the two vessels came together’ in heavy seas (and that the Sea Quest’s ‘crew did not use fenders to cushion the interaction between the hulls, even though fenders were available onboard’). More importantly, MAIB’s investigation confirms that as a result of the circumstances in which it was intercepted, the Haitian sloop would have had ‘negligible stability’ and so even ‘the slightest of stimuli’ might have caused it to capsize. ‘Once sufficient numbers [of people] had moved onto the deck, capsize was almost inevitable.’

The MAIB report then proceeds to demonstrate, in diplomatic but damning terms, the rather startling failure of the TCI marine police (and by implication, of their UKSAT minders) to take even the most elementary steps to avoid this inevitability or to mitigate its consequences. MAIB points out that so long as ‘the sloop and passengers remained in the custody of the police, there was a duty upon them to take reasonable steps to ensure the passengers’ safety and right to life’, and suggests, discreetly, that this ‘implicit duty had not been fully appreciated.’ MAIB observes that although ‘over recent years there have been a number of cases of sloops capsizing, and reports of heavy rolling and near capsize’, nevertheless the TCI police had not even begun to formulate appropriate procedures for the safe interception of clandestine migrants. MAIB points out that ‘the problem of Haitian sloops with poor stability carrying migrants was well known in the region and among members of the TCI marine police unit (MPU). However, no instructions or operating procedures for mitigating the risk of capsize when interdicting these vessels had been issued to the police launch crews.’ Instead, the Sea Quest and other TCI coast guard vessels have simply been left to follow ‘common practice among the launch crews, derived from previous experience and passed on within the MPU.’ MAIB notes that whereas ‘other nations have developed ways of countering the stability problem’ (by off-loading passengers onto more stable boats, or by escorting rather than towing intercepted vessels into port), the Sea Quest has been operating for years without even estimating and testing its own ‘maximum permissible passenger carrying capacity.’

The MAIB investigators further demonstrate that a whole series of failings in seamanship, communications, logistics and planning severely hampered the subsequent search and rescue operation. As a result of these failings the last eleven survivors were left clinging to their sloop’s upturned hull for around three and a half hours. Even more damning is MAIB’s observation that, after disaster struck, the crew of the Sea Quest failed to use its 7-man life-raft to help save more of the sloop’s drowning passengers. Once the launch then returned to port (around 4am), with about half of the sloop’s passengers on board, it was unable to rejoin the shambolic rescue effort until 8am, because a rope had become entangled in one of its propellers.

In short, MAIB concludes that ‘the significant risk of a sloop capsizing, with the consequent need for a rescue operation, had not been considered by the TCI MPU. Although such an emergency could have been predicted had the inherent risks of towing vessels with unknown stability been assessed, no operating procedures were established to respond to marine emergencies on this scale.’

Or in other words: as far as the UK and its overseas territories are concerned, when handling large numbers of frightened Haitian people in an over-crowded boat the adoption of even the most basic and most obvious safety precautions isn’t worth the hassle. Why should it be, after all, when an incident that kills dozens of such people fails to arouse even the slightest ripple of interest from the media based in the country that was responsible for their safety?

Of course MAIB itself is careful to point out that its ‘recommendations shall in no case create a presumption of blame or liability.’ This precaution too is hardly necessary. The ascription of blame for May 4th has not yet been much of a public priority in the UK, in the TCI or indeed anywhere else. The British government is no doubt entitled to take some comfort, meanwhile, from the fact that Haitian relatives of the deceased, for reasons too obvious to mention, are in no position to press for any sort of meaningful compensation for their loss.

It is now September 6th. You might be wondering if the publication in London last month of MAIB’s incriminating report finally managed to provoke at least some sort of minimal acknowledgement of the disaster in any of the UK’s famously even-handed newspapers. No, it didn’t. British press coverage of this story, such as it was, began and ended in mid-May 2007. If today you take the time to search the online editions of the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Financial Times or the Sunday Times and look for articles published over the last few months containing the words ‘Caicos’ or ‘Haiti’ or ‘Haitian’ then just about the only things you’ll find are some thoughtful tips about Caribbean holidays and reports of tourists worried by Hurricane Dean, along with a few appreciative (and as it happens, profoundly misleading) reviews of Asger Leth’s so-called ‘documentary’ film, The Ghosts of Cité Soleil. This again is business as usual. It isn’t very hard to see why most foreign observers of Haiti appear to find fantasy more palatable than fact.


1 An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the journal Radical Philosophy, number 145 (September 2007), pages 53-55.

2 PÃ¥l Sletten and Willy Egset, Poverty in Haiti (Oslo: FAFO, 2004), http://www.fafo.no/pub/rapp/755/755.pdf.

3 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

4 Kim Howells (Minister for the Middle East), written statement in the House of Commons, Hansard 29 June 2005, http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm050629/wmstext/50629m02.htm.

5 ‘Country Profiles: Haiti’, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2007), http://www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1007029394365&a=KCountryProfile&aid=1020281587352.

6 Marc Lacey, ‘New routes and new risk to flee Haiti’, New York Times 19 May 2007.

7 Steven Greenhouse, ‘Islands to let U.S. process Haiti refugees’, New York Times 4 June 1994.

8 Cited in Christopher Marquis, ‘France Seeks U.N. Force in Haiti’, New York Times 26 February 2004.

9 ‘Boat rammed, say Haiti survivors’, BBC 10 May 2007.

10 ‘Survivor of Turks & Caicos Islands boat disaster gives an eyewitness account,’ Haiti Support Group 6 June 2007, http://haitisupport.gn.apc.org/TCIeyewitness.html.

11 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted” at alleged boat ramming off Turks and Caicos’, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

12 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted”‘, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

13 Manuel Roig-Franzia, ’20 Haitian migrants die at sea’, Washington Post 5 May 2007.

14 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

15 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

16 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted”‘, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

17 Petty Officer Third Class Barry Bena, cited in ‘Boat Capsizes; Scores of Haitians Are Lost’, New York Times 5 May 2007.

18 MAIB Safety Bulletin 1/2007, ‘Capsize of Haitian sloop, while under tow by Turks and Caicos Islands’ Police Launch Sea Quest, 4 May 2007′, http://www.maib.gov.uk/cms_resources/Safety%20Bulletin%201-07.pdf.

19 ’36 dead as migrants’ boat capsizes’, Observer 6 May 2007, http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2073475,00.html.

20 Andrew Buncombe, ‘Patrol vessel blamed for collision which left 60 Haitian migrants dead’, Independent 12 May 2007, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2534050.ece.

See Also Peter Hallward’s interview with former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and his review of Wesleyan University Dean of the Social Sciences Alex Dupuy’s new book “The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community and Haiti”.

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