Tibbetts: Cuba agreement may need review

Three recent escapes of Cuban migrants from the Cayman Islands Immigration Detention Centre, one of which turned into a rowdy protest, may force government to re-think its current repatriation policies.

‘I do believe that we need some very clear policy on the matter,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said at a Friday press briefing. ‘It might well be also….that the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba) that exists may need to be re-examined.’

The MOU, signed in 1999, sets out the conditions under which Cuban migrants who enter Cayman illegally are sent back to their home country. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of Cubans are seen in small boats off the coast of these islands each year. Most are fleeing their home in search of better economic opportunities.

However, there are a few that come to Cayman seeking political asylum who are allowed to stay here if they meet certain conditions.

Those who are not deemed refugees under the UN Convention are kept at a minimum security detention facility until they are sent home.

That repatriation process, which is supposed to take 21 days, has dragged on for more than three months for some migrants being kept at the centre. Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson has said the delays are one of the main reasons for the escapes.

Mr. Tibbetts said improving security at the centre may be one thing government looks at in the short-term. However, he admitted Friday that the influx of Cuban migrants is unlikely to stop anytime soon, and has left Cayman’s leadership in a difficult position when considering longer-term plans.

‘We have one side of the coin saying that we’re callous and uncaring, and we should assist these people,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘We have the official arm of government…which says we should not encourage that because that’s going to encourage more of them to come our way.

‘We get them here; we’re not prepared to house them properly; we pray fervently that we don’t get any more. So we don’t prepare a proper facility.’

Mr. Tibbetts has frequently said Cayman does not have the resources to deal with housing and caring for hundreds of Cuban migrants at a time. Regulations passed by Cabinet in 2005 prohibit government officials from rendering assistance to migrants unless they are taken into custody for repatriation.

‘In an ideal world, there are basic human rights that these people have,’ said Mr. Tibbetts. ‘But there are certain basic protections that we have to ensure for the people of this country. We need a policy that is humane, but is the least costly as possible for us.’

He also pointed out that the current agreement with Cuba was negotiated without the involvement of Cayman’s elected politicians.

That’s been a sore subject lately with the government as elected Cabinet Ministers, who do not oversee the operations of the Police and Immigration Departments, are being asked questions about why Cuban migrants being held in detention were allowed to take to the streets for a protest.

Police Commissioner Stuart Kernohan has said that the 14 April protest was handled well, and without the need to use force to subdue demonstrators.

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