By Livia Albeck-Ripka
A remote archipelago and national park off the coast of Key West, Florida, was closed earlier this week after a group of about 300 migrants arrived by boat on the islands’ shores, park officials said.
The cluster of mostly uninhabited islands, known as the Dry Tortugas National Park, is about 100 miles north of Havana and is known for its crystalline waters and coral reefs. But over the past few days, the islands have become a different kind of refuge.
In addition to the 300 migrants who arrived on the archipelago, more than 160 other migrants have arrived in other parts of the Florida Keys over the past several days, according to the local and federal authorities. Officials did not specify countries of origin but said in a statement that the park and region had recently “seen an increase in people arriving by boat from Cuba.”
The influx of migrants began around New Year’s Eve, authorities said, and come amid a surge in seaborne migration. In the one-year period ending in September, the U. S. Coast Guard apprehended more than 6,000 Cubans, compared with close to 840 migrants the previous year, the authority said in a recent statement.
The archipelago temporarily closed starting at 8 a.m. Monday, so that authorities and medical workers could evaluate, care for and transport the migrants to Key West, park officials said. The park’s own responders would provide food, water and basic medical attention to the migrants until the arrival of the Department of Homeland Security, they added.
“The effort now is to try to get them transferred off the island via boat to mainland Key West and the Florida Keys, so they can then be transferred to federal law enforcement agents,” Lt. Cmdr. John Beal, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard’s 7th District, said of the migrants.
“They’re uninhabited remote islands that don’t have the infrastructure to support them,” he said, adding that local, state and federal authorities were coordinating to get food and water to the archipelago, which is usually staffed by just a few rangers.
Federal authorities said the migrants would be removed from the islands and processed to determine their legal status to remain in the United States or to be repatriated to their country of origin.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the Florida Keys and its islands, described the influx of migrants over the weekend as a “mass migration crisis.” The office accused federal authorities, who in some cases were expected to arrive only the next day, of a sluggish response. “This federal failure is creating a humanitarian crisis,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement posted to Facebook on Monday.
The park was expected to be closed for several days, officials said, an action that they said was “necessary for the safety of visitors and staff because of the resources and space needed to attend to the migrants.”
Park officials said that all closures would “remain in place until further notice” and that during that time all ferries and seaplanes would be suspended.