Authorities on US Virgin Islands reportedly turning away boats arriving from British Virgin Islands, facing devastation in hurricane’s aftermath
The US government is turning away people trying to flee the hurricane-devastated British Virgin Islands for the nearby US Virgin Islands unless they are American citizens, refusing even those with US visitor visas, storm survivors have told the Guardian.
Many of those evacuated from the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, including the British Virgin Islands (BVI), have been able to enter Puerto Rico, a US territory to the west, but thousands are still trying to leave the storm-ravaged islands.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the authorities on the US Virgin Islands have been turning back boats arriving with evacuees and refugees from its neighboring islands.
Meanwhile, officials on the largest BVI island, Tortola, have stopped people heading to the airport or approaching boats at the port heading to the US Virgin Islands (US VI) unless they had proof of US citizenship and tickets, the Guardian was told.
Patricia Thomas, a 34-year-old financial services manager in Westchester County, north of New York City, said she had been contacted by her two sisters and their five children on Tortola, who were being prevented from traveling to the US VI.
“They are living in a shack with no running water, no sanitation, basically nothing,” Thomas told the Guardian on Tuesday.
Hurricane Irma hit the Leeward Islands almost a week ago and caused appalling damage on its way north-west, before it brushed Cuba and hit Florida at the weekend.
Amid criticism at the British government’s response to the disaster, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, flew to the Caribbean on Tuesday to see the UK relief effort first-hand.
But thousands are struggling for survival, as well as basic law and order and hygiene, amid wrecked buildings and widespread debris across many islands, including the British Virgin Islands.
“The island is not fit to live on,” Sarah Thompson told the Guardian on Monday as she tried to get her husband evacuated. He reached Puerto Rico on Tuesday. She spoke of rising panic and the threat of disease for those left behind. Five are known to have died in the BVI but the death toll is expected to rise.
Patricia Thomas said her sisters Cathy Ronan and Nadia Winter, both of whom are teachers on Tortola, were trying to leave the island with their children.
One of the women is British, one Guyanese, two of the children are US citizens and the others have valid US visitor visas, Thomas said, but the US authorities will not let them travel to the US Virgin Islands.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous and inhumane. Anyone who goes from the BVI to the US VI in these circumstances does not want to stay there. They will be temporary until they can come home. It’s almost a joke,” she said.
Thomas said she had contacted the US state department but nothing had been resolved.
She said her sisters were stopped when driving to the airport for information or to try to buy tickets out, and turned back. When they went to a port that is normally used for cruise ships, from where private charter boats were leaving for the US VI, officials told them not to board boats as they would not be allowed to land on the neighboring US territory unless they were American citizens.
The US state department did not immediately return a request from the Guardian for comment.
“I spoke to officials in Puerto Rico and they were very surprised to hear of people not being allowed into the US VI. I’m trying to get my relatives to Puerto Rico now, it’s very worrying,” said Thomas.