The Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission will ask government to consider re-drafting a 1999 agreement between the British Overseas Territory and Cuba that dictates how migrants from that country are to be dealt with when they illegally land on local shores.*
Grand Cayman, about 150 miles south of Cuba, and the smaller islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman receive dozens of boat migrants from Cuba each year.
Cayman generally does not consider most of the Cubans who inadvertently land here as refugees, as the term is defined under international conventions. The travellers, mostly men, are usually looking to get into Honduras and then head up through Central America to the United States to find work.
The memorandum of understanding, signed on 15 April, 1999, between the Cayman Islands and Cuba sets out how the Cayman Islands handle repatriation of Cuban citizens.
Following a lengthy review of the issue, the Human Rights Commission recommended that the deputy governor and attorney general rework the existing memorandum of understanding with Cuba signed between Cayman Islands and Cuban governments.
“The commission is most concerned that the [memorandum] does not indicate that repatriation is not actually the default position of the Cayman Islands government,” according to a summary of issues included on the HRC’s website.
“[It] does not portray that refugees are given the opportunity to apply for and engage in a process to seek asylum.” The commission also recommended that law enforcement officials embark on a public education campaign to inform people about the intent of Section 109 of the Immigration Law – which pertains to human smuggling.
The section makes it an offence “whether for financial or material benefit or not” for a person to assist or facilitate the transportation, harbouring or movement into or out of the Cayman Islands. Sentences of up to seven years in prison can be given upon conviction under the section.
The Human Rights Commission also seeks to discuss with local police how marine officers determine whether a Cuban migrant’s craft should be brought ashore when it is found in territorial waters.
Right now, Cuban boat migrants are generally allowed to continue on their journey unless they ask for help or come ashore illegally.
Cabinet members passed regulations in January 2005 setting out guidelines on how migrants should be received.
Those guidelines state: “Cuban migrants must be advised by immigration officers that no assistance will be rendered, and that permission to land will not be granted for the purpose of repairing their vessels or receiving other assistance.” The rules also state Cubans should generally be repatriated within 21 days of their illegal landing in the Cayman Islands.
Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Garfield “Gary” Wong has said the Cayman Islands government would not send migrants from any country back to a situation where they would face torture, as it would be against international human rights conventions. He said there is no evidence this is occurring with the Cuban boat migrants.
The commission’s review of the matter noted that it wished to make any future contacts with refugees “as procedurally fair as possible”.