FREEPORT, Bahamas - After waiting hours to board a ferry from the hurricane-ravaged Bahamas to the U.S., dozens of evacuees were told to disembark Sunday if they did not have a visa to enter, according to a report.
The evacuees were told they needed to bring their Bahamian passports and a paper from authorities verifying they did not have a criminal record, Fox-affiliate WSVN in Miami reported. But after boarding a Balearia-owned ferry in Freeport Harbor, an announcement came over the loudspeaker urging some passengers to exit the boat.
“Passengers who do not have U.S. visas, please proceed to disembark,” the announcement said, according to a video posted on Twitter by WSVN reporter Brian Entin.
About 130 evacuees exited the boat after having waited hours to get on board the ferry, which was headed from Freeport, Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, according to WSVN.
A passenger who was booted off the vessel was told by a Balearia employee that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency ordered anyone traveling without a U.S. visa or a police record to disembark, WSVN reported. The ferry departed without the evacuees.
“At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing,” said Renard Oliver, who was trying to evacuate. “It’s hurting because [I’m] watching my daughters cry.”
But officials with CBP told the news station it was the ferry crew that made the decision.
“I think it’s important to note that if those folks did stay on the boat and arrived, we would have processed them, vetted them and worked within our laws and protocols and done what we had to do to facilitate them,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Port Director Stephen Silvestri told WSVN in Florida. “I think it was a business decision by Balearia to remove them. They were not ordered off the boat by any government entity."
Balearia Caribbean did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On the CBP website, Bahamian citizens flying to the U.S. may apply for admission without a visa if they meet certain requirements, including possessing a valid, unexpired passport, having no criminal record and having a police certificate issued within the past six months. Required documents for those traveling by boat was not immediately clear.
In a provided statement, CBP said it continues to process the arrivals of passengers evacuating from the Bahamas — as demonstrated by the 1,500 Bahamian evacuees who arrived Saturday at the Port of Palm Beach, Florida, aboard a cruise ship and were “processed without incident.”
“CBP relies on the transportation companies in both the air and sea environments to be engaged in ensuring the safety and well-being of any individuals that have been devastated by this tragedy and that requires transparent communication and planning for adequate resources to receive any arrivals,” CBP Public Affairs Liaison Michael Silva said in a statement.
“CBP was notified of a vessel preparing to embark an unknown number of passengers in Freeport and requested that the operator of the vessel coordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials in Nassau before departing The Bahamas.”
The statement continued: “Everyone who arrives to the United States from another country must present themselves to a CBP officer for inspection at an official CBP Port of Entry. All persons must possess valid identity and travel documents. CBP has a Preclearance operation in Nassau. CBP is committed to carrying out our duties with professionalism and efficiency—facilitating lawful international travel and trade.”
Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas last week, killing at least 44 people and leaving thousands more displaced on Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands.
This story was reported from Cincinnati.