Migrants at Sea: 1980

Dan reken pi dous pase kacho prizon

Better the shark’s teeth than the prison cell.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tens of thousands of Haitian refugees – often referred to in the popular press as “boat people” — took to the sea to seek a better life in the US or in the Bahamas, fleeing the economic hardship and political repression under the dictatorship of Jean Claude Duvalier. This first major period of Haitian sea migration was marked by the same patterns of discrimination, political manipulation, and bureaucratic racism that would shape subsequent refugee flows in the 1990s and 2000s: the United States granted Cuban “boat people” fleeing a communist regime political asylum, whereas Haitian “boat people” fleeing a repressive right-wing dictatorship were considered economic refugees rather than political refugees, and not afforded the same rights.

On September 23, 1980, 116 Haitian men, women and children clandestinely left Haiti, only to be stranded on Cayo Lobos, a tiny, uninhabited Bahamian island. For nearly two months, the Haitian, US, and Bahamian government argued over who was responsible for the Haitian people in Cayo Lobos. When the Haitian government refused to rescue them, the Bahamian police stormed the makeshift refugee camp on November 16, using tear gas, beating and clubbing the weakened boat people who were then forced to board a Bahamian coast guard cutter and repatriated to Haiti. The reporting in Haiti and the US (a CBS crew had filmed the incident) marked a turning point for the Duvalier regime and was one of the triggers of the November 28, 1980 crackdown against the independent press and the democratic movement in Haiti.


Inter-Actualités Magazine, Special Report on “Boat People,” May 1980

Historical and political context of Haitian refugees in the Bahamas, 19 Sept. 1980

Cayo Lobos – Who will take responsibility for the stranded Haitian migrants?  November 1980

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