Cuban migrant policy under review


Two separate reviews of Cayman’s policy of dealing with Cuban migrants entering local territorial waters are under way. 

One is being run by the Cayman Islands government’s Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs, while the second is being done by the Cayman Islands Human 
Rights Commission. 

The mass migration management committee, which had previously existed to deal with large numbers of Cuban migrants who came to Cayman in earlier years, has been re-established, said Wesley Howell, deputy chief officer of the 
Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs. 

“It is looking at contingency planning for another mass influx of migrants, whether from Cuba or Haiti or elsewhere,” Mr. Howell said. “It’s a multidiscipline organisation and includes the Health Services Authority, social services, immigration, police and persons involved in this sort of planning exercise to come up with a plan that could be executed in the event that we have a mass influx of migrants.” 

Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding signed in 1999 between the Cayman Islands and Cuban governments, migrants from Cuba who enter Cayman waters cannot be given any assistance and those who land on Cayman’s shores must be repatriated back to Cuba. Cabinet regulations that came into force in January 2005 state: “[M]igrants encountered in Cayman’s territorial waters or who come ashore to any of the three islands will be refused permission to land and will no longer be given assistance to enable them to continue their journey. Those able to depart immediately and wishing to do so will be allowed to leave. Otherwise they will be detained and repatriated to Cuba.” 

Although the MOU does not mention asylum, migrants who land in Cayman can apply for asylum and refugee status in accordance with international conventions and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines. If they do not qualify for refugee states, they are repatriated to their home country. The Immigration Department screens arrivals who apply for asylum to determine if they are refugees fleeing persecution or if they are economic migrants.  

Mr. Howell said the committee would make recommendations to Cabinet regarding handling any future large influx of migrants, but it would be up to Cabinet whether the existing memorandum of understanding between the Cayman Islands and Cuban government would be amended or updated. 

One of the areas the committee is exploring is the policy of not offering assistance to Cuban migrants who enter Cayman waters.  

“The MOU prohibits giving assistance, but we also have human rights issues,” said Mr. Howell, adding that a balance had to be struck between what the Cuban government wants, what the Cayman Islands’ Bill of Rights demands and what is best for the Cayman Islands, as well the migrants themselves. 

Deputy Director of the Department of Immigration Gary Wong said the Department of Immigration has been spearheading the migration management committee during the past few months.  

“It involves all the stakeholders within government departments who would be making contact with migrants when they come to the islands and whether they land here,” Mr. Wong said. “The committee has met and various assignments were given to each department and once the assignments are completed, we will recommend another meeting and speak with outside stakeholders like the Red Cross and churches.” 

Although it is technically illegal to give assistance to Cubans who come to Cayman, no one has ever been prosecuted locally for helping Cubans in area waters. However, one case is with the Legal Department of a person who helped a Cuban migrant being held in a holding facility to escape, Mr. Wong said. 


Human Rights Commission review  

Meanwhile, the Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission is carrying out its own review of how Cayman deals with Cuban migrants. 

In late 2012, the Human Rights Commission called for a meeting with the deputy governor and attorney general to discuss the reworking of the 1999 memorandum of understanding between the Cayman Islands and Cuban governments. In the minutes of a 3 September, 2012, meeting, the Human Rights Commission stated: “The commission is most concerned that the [memorandum] does not indicate that repatriation is not actually the default position of the Cayman Islands government … “[It] does not portray that refugees are given the opportunity to apply for and engage in a process to seek asylum.”  

Deborah Bodden, secretariat manager of the Human Rights Commission, said the review, which began in 2011, is slated to be completed within the next three months and its findings would be available on the commission’s website. 

Ms Bodden said the commission had met with the relevant government officials who deal with migrants, as well as the Marine Unit, which intercepts boats carrying Cubans migrants when they enter local waters. 

The official policy of refusing to assist migrants who want to continue their journey by sea has been a controversial one, but the government’s stance is that if Cayman assists people to enter other countries illegally, the Cayman Islands may be branded a supporter of illegal migration by those countries as well as run the risk of large numbers of migrants coming to Cayman, which would strain local resources. 

According to Royal Cayman Islands Police Service records, Cuban migrants entered Cayman waters seven times last year, nine times in 2011 and three times in 2010. 


Members of the public were not allowed to hand over cartons of food and water to 30 Cubans who arrived on a boat off West Bay last week, due to Cayman’s official policy of refusing to assist migrants in local waters. – PHOTO: NORMA CONNOLLY


  1. My two bits in regards to Cuban entering our waters, are that I see no reason that is wrong with us giving them a few cased of chips and bottle water, a jacket and a cap. I believe if they have money we should sell them . These refugees the Cayman Islands does not need to give them Political asylum because they are running away to a land of milk and Honey. They do not want to stay in Cayman, and if it is checked out all of them have been to prison. However I would say give them chips coffee and water. Let them pay for gas and repairs to their boat. They usually leave with money. Send them on their way back home or to follow their dream. If their boat cannot be repaired and some or all of them wish to get off, my suggestion is to re-open the Cuban detention, ran by ex police officers, not by security guards. The risk of them getting away is too high.

  2. Not giving water food to passing immigrants trying to escape a communist country is not human! They are risking their lives to get away from Castro’s paradise !

  3. The problem with that Southernboy, what do you do when the Cubans you helped, make phone calls to other Cubans in Cuba that we helped them along the way?

    Think of it. We are a small island. Cant even balance our budget, and the fear of Cubans swamping us by the thousands because we helped a few.

  4. Well said, Hunter. This so-called Human Rights legislation makes fair of one and foul of the other. There is nothing human or right about it.
    If the Cubans want to change their country, they need to unite and work together.
    If the United Nations are so concerned, why don’t they help?
    I fear this new Cayman government is full of globalists willing to sell out their country for a peaceful life in a gated community while the rest of us battle for a crust of bread with thousands of immigrants given the right to live and work here by drastic changes in the law. 120,000 soon come.

  5. needlecase – How much is a case of water? 3.00 in the US and what does this have to do with balancing Cayman’s budget? Wasn’t it Cayman citizens trying to give them food and water?I guess you would just let them die because you are afraid a few more might ask for 3 of water !! What is your real reason?

  6. Southernboy, I dont think you get the rationale of what I am trying to say. If we feed and we give water to a few, are we prepared to deal with a large exodus of migrants to the Cayman Islands like happened before in the 1990’s where government spent so much to house them? Right now Cayman is in an economic mess. How are we going to deal with something we cant afford ????

  7. needlecase – you miss my point ! How is giving several cases of water food to Cubans passing by going to over run Cayman ? They are not staying ! Help them to keep going ! Is this hard to understand?

  8. I couldn’t care less about political agreements with Cuba. This is a humanitarian issue, not that far removed from the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the internationally recognized Maritime Law that, however inconvenient, you give assistance to another vessel and it’s crew, who are in distress.
    Cayman promotes itself as a Christian, and a Maritime nation. How would Caymanian lawmakers feel, if it was reported in the global Press that their refusal to provide water and basic provisions to Cuban refugees in transit to Central America, had resulted in the death of fellow human beings – particularly women and children. Frankly, if I were an RCIPS officer called to one of these situations, I would turn a very large Blind Eye to what was going on. And if everything went pear shaped, plead my case in the European Court of Human Rights – much as I believe that institution is generally a pinko liberal institution.

  9. The dry foot policy is what is idiotic; if you put foot on US soil you automatically get citizenship, but if the coast guard catch you before you land, back to the land of nod. I mean what is this policy saying?.. Sneak out of Cuba, sneak past our patrols, and if you don’t get swept out into the Atlantic never to be seen again, and you manage to infiltrate our defences you can stay!.. Sound like a game of hide and go seek.

    Cuba is our neighbour, many Caymanians have relatives there, the least we can do is to help them to meet the US coast guard.

  10. I agree that GOVERNMENTS policy should be not to assist Cuban migrants b/c we do not want tens of thousands of them coming to our shore for aid. We don’t have the resources.
    With that said however, government should not prevent PRIVATE CITIZENS from offering aid. If individual citizens want to provide them with food and water, gas, sunglasses, or whatever charity they are willing to give from their own pockets, government should not have Immigration and Police officers standing by ready to arrest those citizens that do.
    Caymanians care more about the law than their own morals and supposedly Christian beliefs.
    Rest assured, if I ever come across a boat of refugees, I will give them whatever supplies I can muster and gladly go to jail for it. I know what is right and I could care less what THE LAW says.

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