Authorities in the Turks and Caicos Islands are trying to figure out what killed 20 people whose bodies were found on a boat floating near Grand Turk island on Thursday.
The boat was spotted by fisherman drifting about a mile off the island and they immediately alerted the marine branch of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force, according to the Associated Press. The victims included two children.
Cause of Death Unknown but No Foul Play Suspected
In a Friday press release, the police said that while the "deaths are unexplained, there is no indication of foul play." "Work is now underway to establish their identity, the cause of death and the circumstances that led them to be found in the Turks and Caicos Islands waters," the press release said.
Commissioner of Police Trevor Botting said the force believed that the vessel came from outside the Caribbean region and that neither the Turks and Caicos Islands, nor its surrounding region, was the intended destination.
"Whatever the circumstances, this is a tragic situation where many people have lost their lives, and the thoughts and prayers of the Force go out to those families who have lost a loved one. We will do all we can to identify them and contact their families," Botting said before adding that investigators are trying to determine the identities of the deceased and how they died.
Migrants or Human Trafficking Victims?
The Turks and Caicos region has often attracted desperate Haitians seeking to flee the poverty-stricken nation and the territory has also been used as a trans-shipment point by human traffickers.
On Friday, a day after the bodies were found, an illegal vessel carrying 43 Haitian migrants was intercepted by the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force off the coast of the islands. The 34 males, eight females and one minor who were found onboard were handed over to the Immigration Task Force for processing and repatriation, according to a police press release.
The Turks and Caicos Islands have previously been accused of being "a destination for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor" by the United States.
In June 2020, Sri Lanka-born Canadian citizen Srikajamukam Chelliah pleaded guilty to human trafficking charges before a Turks and Caicos judge and was sentenced to 14 months in prison. He was extradited to Florida and sentenced Feb. 24 to 32 months in prison for conspiring to smuggle people into the United States.
Chelliah had been caught in August 2019 skippering a boat carrying 158 people, including 28 Sri Lankans. They told investigators they were bound for the United States.