A sloop that was reportedly carrying undocumented Haitian nationals ran aground off South Beach late Tuesday, but authorities said they were only able to capture a few of the people believed to have been onboard.
Chief Immigration Officer Peter Joseph said officials were not certain exactly how many migrants were on the boat, but he added there may have been hundreds of them.
"We received numerous calls as to how many [immigrants were onboard the vessel] ranging anywhere from 20 to 300. So there's no definite number," he said.
Joseph said immigration officers did not receive notification of the vessel until five or six hours after it ran aground in waters just behind the South Beach pools. He said officials made this determination after talking to the migrants they captured.
"Time is a factor," said Joseph yesterday afternoon as he prepared to continue the search for the migrants.
"If we receive a call within a reasonable time then we are able to respond and we will find that we can get a number of persons in that immediate area. In this particular case, because we didn't get the call until hours later it gave them a great opportunity to disperse."
The captured migrants claimed the vessel ran aground around 9 p.m. Tuesday but officials were not aware of it until about 3 a.m. yesterday.
Joseph said it is likely that Bahamians assisted the migrants.
"We know from time to time that persons traveling onboard will have cell phones that they activate once the vessel is in proximity to have someone come and pick them up," he said.
In such situations, he said it becomes even more difficult to capture the migrants.
"We find that a number of Bahamians assist persons in this regard where they move them into a safe house and hold them until they can find friends or relatives that they came into," Joseph said.
He said he deployed four teams to search for the migrants.
The discovery of the vessel coincided with an apprehension exercise conducted by immigration authorities yesterday.
In total, immigration officials captured 60 Haitians, according to Joseph, who said that included the migrants picked up who came in on the vessel, as well as other undocumented migrants in the community.
A man who works in South Beath told The Nassau Guardian yesterday that he saw several men board the grounded vessel shortly after police, immigration and defence force officers had already left the scene.
He claimed that the men transported several sacks into a waiting car.
The man, who did not want to be identified, said he believes that the men were transporting illegal goods because he heard one of the men advising the others to hurry before the police returned.
He said the men seemed to be Bahamians as they all had Bahamian accents.
He added that they were also "prepared for what they came out here for" as they had fins, goggles and snorkels.
However, he said the waters near South Beach were very low at the time, which allowed the men to walk to the boat and remove the bags. The boat was about 500 yards from shore.
Joseph said he had no evidence that anything illegal had been transported on the boat. However, he acknowledged that contraband is sometimes smuggled into the country on sloops.
South Beach resident Newell McPhee said he is tired of immigrants landing in the area.
"We need someone from the defence force to make their presence felt," McPhee said.
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