Over 100 Bahamians hoping to evacuate to Florida after Hurricane Dorian but not having visas were kicked off a ferry as operators failed to coordinate the mission with authorities.
According to a statement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency requested for the company to coordinate with the United States and Bahamian governments to arrange the prescreening of travellers prior to departing Freeport but failed to do so. Footage from WSVN-TV showed the Balearia Caribbean vessel travelling to Fort Lauderdale FL on Sunday, September 8, with a loudspeaker message saying that passengers who did not have a U.S. visa had to disembark.
Bahamians need a visa to travel to the United States unless they are prescreened by U.S. customs officers at one of the 2 main Bahamian airports. The United States agency can also arrange special prescreening for travellers departing from ports. However, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Balearia Caribbean had decided to depart on Sunday instead of waiting for the prescreening.
Florida's other U.S. senator, Rick Scott, and Rubio have asked the administration of President Donald Trump to waive visa requirements altogether for Bahamian storm victims with relatives in the United States but Trump indicated on Monday that he wanted to keep stringent vetting in place in part due to "people going to the Bahamas that weren't supposed to be there."
On Monday, the Spanish ferry company apologized to the 119 passengers who could not be taken to Florida. In the footage, travellers could be seen walking along the aisles, with some carrying kids, to leave the ferry after they had boarded the vessel.
Spokeswoman Pilar Boix said in a statement that the ferry had allowed passengers to embark thinking they had not needed visas. The shipping company had later received indications that in order to travel to the United States, "the passengers would need pre-clearance authorization in person at the immigration offices in Nassau."
A day before the port accident, hundreds of Bahamians had arrived in Florida on a cruise vessel that Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line had offered at no cost. 857 Bahamians had been screened and arrived at the Port of Palm Beach "without incident."