About 30 Cubans escaped from Grand Cayman’s Immigration Detention Centre Saturday morning and spent more than an hour marching around George Town urging government officials not to send them back to their native country.
The escapees carried a cardboard sign which read ‘Don’t to come back to Cuba’ and held a peaceful demonstration at the George Town dock until immigration officials agreed to let them take their concerns to the press.
During the protest police were forced to close down sections of the road to divert traffic around the demonstrators.
The Caymanian Compass and several other media organisations were granted unfettered access to the Cubans in the centre after they had turned themselves in.
‘We do not want to go back to Cuba, we want to go to Honduras…because it will help us economically,’ detainee Jose Miguel Gomez said through a translator.
‘In Cuba I make 10 dollars a month. Sneakers in Cuba cost seven dollars,’ Mr. Gomez said.
‘I want to go to Honduras, Guatemala wherever,’ said Miguel de la Rosa, also a detainee. ‘Even if this march doesn’t help me….people will know our situation, how Cuba abuses its people.’
Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson said the 50 or so Cubans now being kept at the centre are much like Mr. Gomez and Mr. de la Rosa, migrants seeking better economic opportunities.
Mr. Manderson said, as far as he’s aware, none of those who are now housed at the centre qualify as refugees under the United Nations convention, and therefore must be sent back to Cuba if they come to Cayman illegally.
He said the 30 or so people who escaped from the detention centre Saturday got out near the main entrance gate where an outside lock had been tampered with. According to Mr. Manderson, the lock was last checked at 7am. The escape occurred a little after 10am.
‘The security observed something suspicious was happening, but before he could actually respond there was already a mass exodus,’ Mr. Manderson said, adding that there were far too many detainees for centre guards to stop.
Mr. de la Rosa said the Cubans who fled the centre in no way intended harm to any residents of Cayman.
‘We want the people of the Cayman Islands to know we are not violent, we just want our freedom,’ Mr. de la Rosa said, again through a translator.
Other Cubans at the detention centre spoke out about lack of access to telephone communication, and legal representation.
Assistant Chief Immigration Officer Jeannie Lewis said the migrants are allowed to call their families ‘every so often’, about once every three weeks.
Mr. Manderson said no one is preventing the migrants at the centre from contacting an attorney; however he said government does not pay the tab for those services.
‘As long as they can afford (a lawyer), or if there’s someone who wants to give them free representation then that’s their choice,’ he said.
Saturday’s escape marks the third in 10 days at the low-security detention centre. Mr. Manderson acknowledged some of the detainees had been there as long as three months due to bureaucratic delays in sending them back to Cuba, and patience is wearing thin.
The centre was overflowing with detainees Saturday. Two rows of bunk beds were lined up close together on one side of the room. A large fan blowing air in from the front of the room did little to cool temperatures.
Mr. Manderson said the Immigration Department likes to keep the number of detainees at the centre to around 15 to 20. Right now, there’s more than double that number.
He fears the Cuban detainees will keep escaping, unless they’re either sent home or kept in a tighter-security facility.
‘We don’t want to put them in cells; we don’t want to treat them as prisoners. Obviously, if they keep escaping we’ll have to rethink our way of dealing with things.’