Haitian immigrants were simmering with anger allegations that a Turks and Caicos patrol boat may have caused a packed vessel to capsize last week, killing at least 61 of their countrymen.
The Turks and Caicos Islands government has opened an investigation into the May 4 disaster, the worst to hit Haitian migrants in years. Survivors said the coast guard crew rammed their rickety sailboat as it approached the shore, then towed it into shark-filled waters, causing it to capsize, and abandoned them.
"This is our blood. We will demand justice if what the migrants say is true," said Line Francois, pastor of All Saints Evangelical Assembly, a Haitian Protestant church on the territory's main island. "But when you're a foreigner living in another country, your voice is not that strong."
The Turks and Caicos government disputed the migrants' account in a statement released Friday, saying the police boat was towing the migrants toward, not away from, the shore and immediately offered help when the vessel capsized.
Haitian immigrants form an essential low-income work force here, laboring to build luxurious beachfront homes, collect trash and carry suitcases for tourists. Many say allegations in the capsizing underscored their belief that they get treated like second-class citizens compared to locals, known in the Turks and Caicos as "belongers."
Many Haitians arrive here illegally by boat, paying about US$400 (EUR300) for the two-day journey across 125 miles (200 kilometers) of ocean. Several interviewed by The Associated Press recounted stories of illegal Haitian immigrants being robbed, beaten and deported by immigration agents before they could lodge a complaint.
"Dogs get treated better than Haitians here," spat a 33-year-old Haitian hotel worker, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution. He called what happened to the migrants last week a "crime" but doubted it would ever be resolved.
"Haitians don't get justice in this place," he said.
But some said their home country, not the Turks and Caicos, is to blame.
"The Haitian government didn't do its work and create jobs," said Rudy Delancy, a taxi driver who has lived here for more than 10 years. "That's why people risk their lives and get on the boats."
Haiti's government ordered flags lowered to half-mast for an official period of mourning for the lost migrants, and the Interior Ministry promised to crack down on human traffickers even though the country's coast guard has only a handful of working boats.
In 1998, Turks and Caicos Islands police allegedly opened fire on a boat packed with more than 100 Haitian migrants, touching off a capsizing that led to the drowning of dozens. Officials said the police fired warning shots and none hit the migrants or the boat.
Haitians have been coming to the Turks and Caicos for years, fleeing the violence and social turmoil of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country for jobs as construction workers, janitors, landscapers and bellhops in the wealthy territory of 33,000.
In contrast to the divers and yachters who stay in luxury hotels along white-sand beaches, the Haitians mostly live in ramshackle communities. Still, the conditions are far superior to life back home.
Many are proud of having been part of a work force that converted the Turks and Caicos from a mosquito-infested backwater to a popular resort.
"Haitians built this place," said Ronald Gardiner, a Haitian-born businessman who used to host a Creole-language radio program in the Turks and Caicos. "When I came here 22 years ago, there was no fresh water, no electricity and mosquitoes were the king of the island. Now look at it."