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Haiti bans charter flights to Nicaragua in blow to migrants fleeing poverty and violence

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti's government has banned all charter flights to Nicaragua that migrants fleeing poverty and violence had been increasingly using in their quest to reach the United States, according to a bulletin issued Monday that The Associated Press obtained.

Haiti’s government did not provide an explanation for the decision in its bulletin, which was first reported by The Miami Herald. Civil aviation authorities in Haiti did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The move left a couple of thousand angry and bewildered travelers stranded in a parking lot facing Haiti's main international airport in the capital of Port-au-Prince surrounded by their luggage, with some holding babies.

“I have to seek a better life elsewhere because Haiti doesn’t offer my generation anything," said 29-year-old Jean-Marc Antoine. "It’s either hold a gun and be involved with a gang, be killed, or leave the country.”

His brother in Chile had loaned him $4,000 for the plane ticket, and like many of the stranded people, he fretted about whether he would get his money back.

Nearby, Marie-Ange Solomon, 58, said she had been calling the charter company repeatedly to no avail. She had paid $7,000 total to leave Haiti with her son.

“After gathering money to get me and my son out of this fragile country, now all of a sudden they stop everything,” she said. “I thought I was going to be freed today.”

Solomon kept an eye on their bags as her 28-year-old son ran to the airport repeatedly in case someone called their names.

More than 260 flights departing Haiti and believed to have carried up to 31,000 migrants have landed in the Central American country of Nicaragua since early August as Haiti’s crisis deepens, with gangs estimated to now control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince. The number of migrants represent nearly 60% of all U.S.-Mexico border Haitian arrivals, said Manuel Orozco, director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Experts have said that seats on charter flights to Nicaragua can range from $3,000 to $5,000, with Nicaragua a popular destination because it does not require visas for certain migrants.

“The magnitude of the flights are just completely unusual ... and it represents a security risk,” Orozco said in a phone interview.

He questioned whether the suspension of the charter flights was prompted by outside pressure, adding that he did not know if the U.S. government was involved.

Orozco noted that there were no charter flights from Port-au-Prince to Nicaragua last January and that the three daily flights that began in late July had grown to 11 flights a day.

Nicaragua Vice President Rosario Murrillo did not respond to a request for comment on the change in Haitian policy. Some Nicaraguans had benefitted from the influx of migrants, offering them guide services to Honduras.

The suspension of charter flights could prompt Haitian migrants to seek other ways to flee their country, he said.

“I think Dominicans will probably at this point organize themselves or cross their fingers that there is not a cross-over," Orozco said.

The two countries share the island of Hispaniola, but are now in a dispute over construction of a canal in Haiti that would divert water from a river that runs along the border. Dominican President Luis Abinader announced last month that his government would stop issuing visas to Haitians and he closed the border to all Haitians seeking to cross for work, education, medical issues or other purposes.

With another migration route popular with Haitians closing on Monday, frustration began to build among the stranded Haitians at the airport.

“Can you imagine that I spent all this money? I sold everything that I had,” Jean Erode Louis-Saint, 25, whose flight was scheduled for mid-afternoon Monday but never received a boarding pass. “I cannot stay in this country because of the lack of security. Gangs are everywhere.”

He used to work along the border that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic exchanging currencies, but has struggled to find another job.

“I cannot do anything in Haiti anymore,” he said as he stood with a backpack on his back surrounded by thousands of others.

Many were reluctant to leave in case there was a sudden change in plans, but by late afternoon, the crowd began to thin out.

Among them was 35-year-old Saint-Ville Etienne, a civil engineer who was hoping for a better life so he could care for the 14-year-old son he would have left behind.

“Haiti is in a state of war among its own people,” he said. “I don’t know why they are fighting. It’s only causing everybody to leave the country.”

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Associated Press videographer Pierre-Richard Luxama in Port-au-Prince and AP writer Gabriela Selser in Mexico City contributed to this report. Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Follow AP's global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration