BRASILIA: At least 19 Brazilian migrants are feared drowned off the Bahamas as they tried to cross illegally to the United States, officials in Brasilia said Monday.
The group went missing "during a purported crossing by sea from the Bahamas to the United States," a foreign ministry statement said.
The migrants' families have not heard from them since November 6, the foreign ministry said.
"There are about 20 Brazilians (who have gone missing). So far, there is no information about their whereabouts, nor about the vessel that supposedly was going to take them to the United States," the foreign ministry added.
Brazilian media reports said there were also dozens of other migrants aboard the boat, which officials suspect went down while attempting the roughly 50-mile (80-kilometer) crossing between the Bahamas and the Florida coast.
The Brazilian embassy in Nassau, Bahamas and the Brazilian consulate in Miami, Florida, are in contact with family members and authorities to try to locate the missing persons, officials said.
The Brazilian foreign ministry said it was not ruling out the possibility that the migrants could be in prison or missing for other reasons.
- Silence fuels fears -
But silence from everyone in such a large group, known to have been being trafficked into the US, raises many concerns.
Several Brazilian media outlets reported that family members of the missing migrants told them their kin paid thousands of dollars to "coyotes," people traffickers who smuggle them into the US.
The busiest such route was from Grand Bahama to the Palm Beach area of Florida; now it may include Bimini closer to Miami, or other Bahamian islands.
The sister of one of the Brazilians missing after allegedly traveling to the Bahamas told CBN radio station Globo that it was the third time he was trying to enter the US.
He was deported in 2013 after living illegally in the US for eight years, she was quoted as saying. This time "we do not know who took him.
"There are a number of people. One takes them to Belo Horizonte. Another takes them to Sao Paulo. And then another on to the Bahamas," she was quoted as saying.
- Crisis at home, new routes -
Choosing the route to the US through the Bahamas is not common among Brazilians, Eduardo Siqueira, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who studies migration from Brazil to the US, told AFP.
Brazilians usually enter by plane with a tourist visa and then stay on illegally, or enter by land across the border with Mexico.
So this case, if confirmed, shows Brazilians are finding other, new ways because the usual routes are becoming more difficult, he said.
With its economy plagued by the worst recession in a century, Brazil has seen an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, affecting almost 12 million people.
Siqueira said the current crisis has caused an increase in Brazilian immigration to the US, especially among citizens with a higher educational level.
"They come to look for what they cannot find in Brazil, they come to improve their lives, looking for jobs, income," said the Brazilian professor who has been living in the US for almost three decades, who recently verified an increase in Brazilians seeking services at consulates in the US.
The Foreign Ministry estimates the Brazilian community in the US tops 1.4 million people, based on consular data.
Republican Donald Trump, the president-elect, pledged on the campaign trail to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the Mexican border.
All that "creates a climate of concern, fear among immigrant communities, including in Brazil," Siqueira said.