ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s been over a week since six delegates of the unified Haitian Special Olympics soccer team were reported missing in Osceola County and experts say cause for concern about their safety will only grow the longer the investigation drags on.

“Timing means a lot because the first few hours are critical to hopefully locating that person safely and nearby,” Bryanna Fox, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, said. “As time goes on, the odds of something negative happening increases.”

Five days into the investigation, another soccer team member disappeared, reportedly last seen exiting a bus at Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort on June 11.

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Few details about the investigation have been released by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, other than indicating that foul play is not suspected in the disappearances. As of last week, OCSO spokesperson Nirva Rodríguez said in a text message there was nothing new to report.

When law enforcement agencies say they don’t suspect foul play, that usually means there’s no indication a crime was committed, which doesn’t necessarily mean the person is safe, Fox said.

“If they knew where they were and if they knew they were safe, I assume that that would also be clear and can be cheered,” she said.

Cell phone data can be very helpful when searching for a missing person, but it can be difficult to acquire without a warrant, she adds. “If they don’t have enough evidence … they may not be able to even get access to the victim’s cell phone to start understanding what happened at the moment before they went missing.”

According to the Special Olympics website, Haiti was scheduled to play against the Florida 2 team on June 9. It was one of 11 unified teams from all over the country taking part in tournament games at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Unified teams combine athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to play on the same team.

Six of the seven missing members are listed as soccer players, and only one was confirmed by Special Olympics to have intellectual disabilities. Their ages range from 18 to 32. Representatives with Special Olympics did not clarify what role the oldest missing member, Antione Joseph Mithon, 32, held in the delegation.

In a response to several inquiries from the Orlando Sentinel, the organization said the reason for the disappearance of the latest missing soccer player, Louis Jacques Wilguens, is unknown.

“Local authorities have indicated they have no reason to believe the health and safety of this individual is at risk,” Special Olympics said in a statement using a general communications email, directing all questions to the Sheriff’s Office.

Consulate General of Haiti in Orlando, Herwil Gaspard, said he just wants to know that the members are safe.

“The most important thing right now, we just want to know if they’re good or not,” he said. “I think this is the first time they come in the U.S., so I don’t think they speak English. When you’re coming in a country for the first time and you don’t speak the language, it can be more difficult for you to do such kind of things, that’s the reason we’re really worried about them.”

A study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons and the International Crime Coordination Centre suggests the majority of missing person cases are due to a misunderstanding, miscommunication or lost documents, followed by asylum seekers, refugees or migrants.

While disappearances due to miscommunication are often resolved quickly, the study found missing people who lost contact with their families or who made a decision to leave without fully informing others took more time to investigate and resolve. Study data shows the median duration to locate missing people was 13 days, with most recovered at the airport or an address of those known to them.

Many have speculated the missing Haitian delegation members for the Special Olympics may be trying to flee their country while traveling overseas, which would not be unprecedented, according to Edwin Guillermo Viales Mora, a data and research assistant at Missing Migrants Project.

“For example, Cubans who have used this way to participate in sports teams and then seek asylum in the United States,” he said.

In 2007, 13 members of Haiti’s under-17 soccer team traveling to South Korea to prepare for the World Cup also went missing, but members were found days later scattered across New York and Boston. One of the members told a reporter they got lost, but the Haitian consul general in New York said he believed they were convinced by U.S.-based family and friends to try to remain in the country.

Viales Mora said it shouldn’t be assumed the Haitian Special Olympians went missing for similar reasons because the context of the disappearance does not indicate that yet. Missing Migrants Project has been monitoring and recording the deaths and disappearances of migrants, regardless of their legal status, since 2014.

“It would not make much sense to me, that if they wanted to migrate or seek asylum in the United States, they would not have told a family member, friend or teammate beforehand,” he said.

Hillary Walsh, a U.S. immigration attorney, said disappearing to seek asylum is not common.

“Being accepted in the Special Olympics is an extraordinary opportunity for a Haitian asylum seeker,” she said. “Under U.S. asylum law, (the missing members) could have asked for asylum at the border when they arrived at the airport in the U.S. or they can seek asylum any time within one year of arriving. Both options are completely legal.”

Walsh, founder of immigration law firm New Frontier, adds Haitians cannot currently get an appointment to seek asylum in their home country.

“The underlying issue with U.S.-Haitian immigration is that the country is constantly reeling from one disaster after another, and with COVID-19 as bad as it was there, the U.S. Embassy has been closed for the better part of two years,” she said. “The backlog of applications is long, the staffing is minimal … (and) bringing its immigrants to the U.S. is just not a priority.”

Last month, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that a growing number of Haitians are risking their lives crossing the sea in increased attempts to flee the political instability, gang-related violence and lack of security and socio-economic opportunities in their country.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported having intercepted roughly 3,900 Haitian nationals as of May, more than double the number reported a year ago, according to the report.

Fox, who is also co-director of the USF Center for Justice Research and Policy, said while people may speculate that missing members of the Haitian delegation disappeared intentionally, she notes it’s important to remember these men could have been susceptible to fraud, labor trafficking and other targeted crimes.

After the earthquake in Haiti, she said there was a massive uptick in human trafficking in Florida. “That was because all of the survivors of the earthquake that came to Florida were so extremely vulnerable and the traffickers knew it and started preying upon these people, so they’re essentially double victimized.”

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