SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Rescuers were searching for at least 10 missing migrants — including two Sri Lankans — in choppy waters off the British Virgin Islands after their flimsy boat collided with a reef and broke apart, authorities said Wednesday.
Rescuers said roughly 26 people, most of them Haitians, had been aboard the overloaded boat that was illegally traveling the 100-mile passage from the Dutch territory of St. Maarten to the British Virgin Islands. They were apparently island-hopping in hopes of eventually reaching U.S. shores.
Crews used aircraft and several boats to look for any sign of the missing people — three children, two women and five men — in white-capped Atlantic waters off Anegada, a sparsely inhabited island of coral and limestone, according to a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.
So far, one migrant's body has been recovered drifting in the sea a couple of miles off the northernmost island of the wealthy British archipelago, Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said Wednesday. He did not disclose a nationality or other specifics.
Police were struggling to identify 13 migrants rescued by a passing fishing boat after their boat hit a reef and pitched passengers into the ocean Monday night. Two others managed to swim safely to shore.
Three of the rescued migrants are Sri Lankan — a nationality that is relatively rare in the constant ebb and flow of illegal immigration across the Caribbean — according to Royal Virgin Islands Police spokeswoman Diane Drayton.
She said survivors said that two of the missing people are also from the island nation off India's southern tip where a civil war has lasted 25 years and killed more than 70,000.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the rest of the migrants appeared to be Haitian.
The British Virgin Islands, comprised of more than 50 islands, are attractive to Caribbean smugglers carrying illegal migrants because they are close to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Last week, officials buried the bodies of four unidentified migrants that washed up in the British Virgin Islands after a pathologist determined they drowned. The Royal Virgin Islands Police said the four men were likely part of a group of illegal Haitian migrants who were detained on Salt and Cooper islands nearly three weeks ago.
"We expect to determine whether someone was responsible for [those] deaths or the deaths were due to misadventure," Acting Police Superintendent Alwin James said from the British territory.