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.