A rash of recent escapes from Grand Cayman’s Immigration Detention Centre has been blamed partly on a backlog in sending Cuban migrants home, and partly on inadequate security there.
Since 5 April, about 45 people have gotten past the gates of the minimum security facility, which the Immigration Department concedes is not a prison.
Some of those migrants have been housed there for months.
‘The MOU (Memorandum of Understanding between the Cayman Islands and Cuba) speaks of a 21 day turnaround in the repatriation process,’ Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson said. ‘We haven’t been able to achieve that.’
‘Some of them have been here as long as three months. Of course, that’s too long.’
Mr. Manderson said there are several reasons for the delays; one being simply the bureaucratic nature of the repatriation.
‘We just can’t put them on a plane and send them to Cuba,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘We notify the Cuban government of (the migrants’) arrival, provide them with details….their addresses, names, photographs. The Cuban government then verifies that these people are in fact Cuban nationals and they authorise their return.’
Cayman’s Chief Immigration Officer also believes the Cuban government itself is backed up with repatriation requests from areas around the Caribbean region.
‘We are not the only place that encounters Cuban migrants,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘Cubans are leaving Cuba almost on a daily basis. They’re picked up in the US; they’re picked up in the Bahamas…and in other territories.’
Government officials point out that many of those who are repatriated show up again in the Cayman Islands.
‘Immigration has recorded some of the same individuals landing in the islands six or seven times,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said.
The delay in sending migrants back has showcased gaping holes in security at the George Town detention centre, where about 30 migrants got out Saturday. The escape turned into an impromptu protest along the George Town dock.
The escapees eventually turned themselves in after immigration officials agreed to let them speak to the press.
Mr. Manderson said he believes recent escapees had help from outside, including people who have brought them items to aid in their escape.
‘It doesn’t help that we have a female prison next door…we have a trailer park across the way,’ he said. ‘It’s not like they are isolated. This is not Guantanamo (referring to the US military installation in Cuba, which includes a detention camp); it’s a much more open facility.’
‘Obviously, if they keep escaping we’ll have to rethink our way of dealing with things.’
The Cubans who left the Cayman Islands facility on Saturday pleaded with the government not to return them to their native country.
Many said they were looking for a better economic opportunity, and wanted to be sent to Honduras or Guatemala. A few admitted their ultimate goal was to reach the United States travelling through Central America and Mexico.
‘But if I can make some more money, I’ll live anywhere…anywhere but Cuba,’ said detainee Miguel de la Rosa.
Mr. Tibbetts and others in Cayman Islands government have said aiding Cuban migrants on their journey to Central America could create a massive drain on this country’s resources.
‘The fear is that if it is known, once you land in the Cayman Islands, you will be able to get assistance…then we will simply have them coming here in droves, and physically we can’t handle that,’ Mr. Tibbetts said in a March press briefing.
In the past, Cayman has been forced to spend between $4 million and $5 million on housing and care for some 1,200 Cubans who were stranded here.