Aug 9 (Reuters) – The U.S. Coast Guard has called off its search for five migrants missing in waters off the Florida Keys since their makeshift vessel capsized on Friday, adding to the dozens lost at sea in attempted boat crossings from Cuba in recent months.
The five who disappeared about 14 miles (23 km) south of Sugar Loaf Key brought to seven the toll of dead or presumed dead in Friday’s accident, even as the Coast Guard on Tuesday repatriated another 43 Cubans intercepted elsewhere in the Keys over the weekend.
Two migrants who were among the 15 known to have been aboard the vessel that overturned on Friday were found dead that day, and eight others were rescued, the Coast Guard said.
The latest air-and-sea search was officially “suspended” late Monday night after covering approximately 1,774 square miles (4,594 square kilometers) without finding a trace of the missing, Coast Guard Petty Officer Nicole Groll said on Tuesday.
She said search and recovery efforts would resume if the Coast Guard received credible new evidence of the victims’ whereabouts, adding the agency did not yet know the circumstances that led to their emergency.
The vessel was of a rickety, makeshift construction lacking a proper hull, Groll said.
“The sea is unforgiving, and trying to leave Cuba to reach the U.S. in an irregular and unsafe manner compounds the risks to yourself and others,” Lieutenant Commander Sean Newmeyer, of the Coast Guard’s southeastern district, said in a statement.
Since October of last year, the Coast Guard has intercepted more than 3,900 Cubans trying to make that passage, and at least 39 have died as of mid-June, according to Groll. By comparison, about 1,200 Cuban migrants were interdicted during the three previous fiscal years combined, the Coast Guard said.
The recent surge has coincided with a downturn in Cuba’s economy, struggling from U.S. sanctions and diminished international tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic.