In the mid-to-late morning of Saturday 13 April tourists and residents in downtown George Town took in a rare sight in the Cayman Islands: a spirited protest by some 30 demonstrators.
But the marchers weren’t complaining about their situation in Cayman. Instead, they were expressing their wishes not to be returned to their home country of Cuba.
Roughly 30 Cubans had escaped from the Immigration Detention Centre that morning. Some had been housed in the centre for months awaiting their repatriation.
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 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.
The 13 April escape marked the third to occur in April at the low-security detention centre. A fourth escape would occur about three weeks later.
At the time these breakouts occurred, the centre was overflowing with detainees. 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 feared the Cuban detainees would keep escaping, unless they were either sent home or kept in tighter security.
Later in the summer the detainees, who at that time had been at centre for as long as five months, were sent back home. The week before their release, immigration officials had actually begun letting them go free from the detention centre during the day because of concerns about locking up people who had committed no crime.
Toward the end of the year, the numbers of Cuban migrants at the detention centre had shrunk in number to just a handful.