Legal immigration is the only option to Cayman’s Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba with regard to how to deal with illegal migrants from that country, says Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson.
In a press release issued by Government Information Services, Mr. Manderson said there was very little room for the Cayman Islands to manoeuvre outside of the current MOU policy. He also offered several reasons why the policy should continue to be followed.
‘Whether to offer assistance [to the Cuban refugees] at all, or the extent to which any assistance should be given in the circumstances, has been a difficult and sensitive issue,’ he said. ‘Whilst I understand those who feel that assistance should be given purely on humanitarian grounds, especially given our long seafaring history, we must not overlook the fact that in doing so we are effectively supporting and perhaps even encouraging, illegal migration.
‘This dilemma has existed and troubled the minds of many of us for many years.’
Under the terms of the MOU, Cubans who enter Cayman’s waters on vessels can choose to land here and receive care in accordance with international conventions. However, if they are deemed to be economic migrants as opposed to refugees, they are repatriated to Cuba. If they instead choose to continue their journey elsewhere, they cannot be offered any assistance.
Mr. Manderson does not see this policy as a lack of regard for human rights.
The Cayman Islands is very careful to apply United Nation conventions and guidelines in determining whether a person is a refugee or an economic migrant, Mr. Manderson said.
‘A migrant is someone who moves from country to country for economic reasons,’ he said. ‘A refugee is a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’
Mr. Manderson said the Immigration Department is careful to identify genuine cases of Cubans fleeing because they are being persecuted, and noted that there are about 50 Cuban migrants who have been granted refugee status in the Cayman Islands, and that about 20 of those people still remain here.
All of those Cubans were granted refugee status years ago, however.
‘There hasn’t been a successful claim for asylum [by a Cuban] for about 10 years,’ he said on Monday, adding that many have tried to make a claim for refugee status.
However, Mr. Manderson said it has been clear that the illegal migrants that have come here in recent years have been doing so for economic reasons.
‘Most don’t even bother to file an appeal because they know they don’t have a case,’ he said.
Mr. Manderson admitted that for a time since the MOU was in place, some members of the public were not stopped if they offered assistance to Cuban migrants. But that is no longer the case.
Any changes to the Cayman Islands’ policy toward Cuban migrants would have serious international ramifications, Mr. Manderson said.
‘For instance, if we assist people to enter other countries illegally we run the risk of those countries branding us as supporters of illegal migration or perhaps even accusing us of assisting in the smuggling of migrants.’
Noting that it is often difficult to be sure of the nationality of occupants of vessels because of their lack of proper documentation, Mr. Manderson said terrorists could travel under the guise of being Cuban migrants, and if Cayman’s policy on the migrants were different, they could possibly use our assistance to gain entry into other countries.
For these and other reasons, including the very real potential impact on internal security, Mr. Manderson said the Cayman Islands Government had a responsibility to do everything possible to prevent illegal migration.
Part of that responsibility was just being a good neighbour, and acting the way we’d want our neighbouring counties to act, he said.
‘How would we as a country react if a large number of migrants arrived in a neighbouring country and the government of that country simply supplied them with food and water and advised them to proceed to Cayman?’ Mr. Manderson asked.
‘For these and many other critical reasons, the Cayman Islands should not be regarded as an established route for use by illegal migrants and other illegal elements such as drug-traffickers and terrorists.’
No other country actually complained about Cayman’s actions when in the past the public was not stopped from offering assistance to the Cuban migrants, Mr. Manderson said.
‘But we’re not going to wait for that to happen,’ he said. ‘I think it would be dangerous for us to wait until somebody complained.’
The Cuban government has never complained to the Cayman government about the matter either.
‘Not that I’m aware of,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘Not to me at least.’
Aside from the possible international repercussions, Mr. Manderson said there were internal reasons for the MOU as well.
‘We must ultimately come back to considering the very serious implications of accommodating large numbers of Cubans here,’ he said.
‘Given human nature, supporting illegal migration can be expected to encourage other persons to opt to travel on unsafe vessels or use violent methods to acquire vessels to leave their country.’
He noted that there is speculation that the conditions currently prevailing in Cuba offer some potential to result in a mass migration in the not-too-distant future.
According to Mr. Manderson, when all these factors are weighed up there is very little room to manoeuvre outside of the current policy. One of the few options, he said, is to promote legal migration, which is already being done.
‘Currently there are about 200 Cubans here on work permits, clearly an indicator that our policies permit legal migration from Cuba as from any other country,’ he said.
In order for citizens to legally emigrate from Cuba, they must first obtain an exit visa. A work permit elsewhere is a requirement for that visa. Once approved, Mr. Manderson said Cubans are only allowed to leave the country for 11 months before they are required to return.