Cuban Migrant Influx Forces Closure of Florida Islands

A group of Migrants from Cuba walk towards Border Patrol officers after wading across the Rio Grande as U.S. border cities brace for an influx of asylum seekers when COVID-era Title 42 migration restrictions are set to end, in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S. December 18, 2022. REUTERS/Jordan Vonderhaar
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Jan 2 (Reuters) – The U.S. National Park Service closed Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys for several days starting on Monday after 300 immigrants had arrived on the islands in recent days, overwhelming first responders.

“Like elsewhere in the Florida Keys, the park has recently seen an increase in people arriving by boat from Cuba and landing on the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park,” the Park Service said in a statement announcing the closure to the public.

Cuba is experiencing a historic exodus of people fleeing the Communist-governed island nation amid extended economic hardship. While most seek overland routes to the United States through Central America and Mexico, others navigate the Caribbean Sea in makeshift vessels.

Park personnel had been providing food, water and basic medical attention until officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could take over the relief effort, the statement said.

The Park Service said the closure would last several days.

In the meantime, ferry and seaplane services taking tourists to the islands were canceled, and all other visitor services were suspended, the Park Service said.

The park is part of a small archipelago about 70 miles (110 km) west of Key West, which itself is about 90 miles north of the closest part of Cuba.

The main island, which is dominated by the hexagonal Fort Jefferson, a disused military fortress made of brick, has no hotels and only a primitive campsite. Tourists are required to provide their own food and water while visiting.

The U.S. Coast Guard has reported it intercepted 6,182 Cubans at sea in fiscal year 2022, which ended on Sept. 20, plus nearly 3,000 more from then until Dec. 10.

A record 220,000 Cubans were caught at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022.

Haitian migrants have also been taking to sea. On Monday, police in Turks and Caicos Islands reported they had intercepted a vessel with 128 people aboard, all believed to be Haitian nationals. They were handed over the immigration authorities, police said.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Christopher Cushing
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