Cuba MOU talks to start in new year

 

Cayman authorities will meet their Havana counterparts early in the new year to negotiate revisions to the 1999 memorandum of understanding prescribing the treatment of illegal Cuban immigrants. 

Discussions are likely to touch on subjects including the timing of mutual notifications, repatriation flights, shared expenses and even asylum claims. 

The changes come in the wake of a 12-page summertime Human Rights Commission review of the issues in the MOU that, until now, has elicited little response from policymakers at the Ministry of Home Affairs, sparking fears that government may do little to boost important changes. 

Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, however, told the Caymanian Compass that he had been in touch with Cuban authorities. 

“We are in discussion with the Cuban government about the MOU, and received correspondence a couple of weeks ago agreeing to sit down and discuss the terms of the MOU. 

“We will do that in the early New Year,” he said. 

The move comes after a series of meetings – the first in April 2012 and three others in January and February 2013 – with Mr. Manderson, the chief immigration officer and other department officials, the director of public prosecutions, the attorney general and commissioner of police. 

“When we spoke to the deputy governor, he did say he was intending to revisit the MOU and some of the issues,” said Richard Cole, Human Rights Commission chairman. 

“We haven’t heard anything since then,” he said. “They said they would go back to the Cuban authorities and, after 14 years, see if [the MOU] needs modernization.” 

“They met with the deputy governor and the attorney general to express their concerns,” a commission spokeswoman said. “The meeting took place. Rewriting the MOU did not.” 

The April 15, 1999, 10-point MOU, between Havana and George Town committed the Cayman Islands government to a series of enforcement actions whenever Cuban migrants appeared inside the 12-mile limit of Cayman waters. 

Within seven days of their apprehension by RCIPS marine units or Immigration Department officers, Cayman must provide a cursory list of names and addresses of each immigrant, followed “in as short a time as possible,” according to the document, details of “sex, date of birth [and] their most recent address in Cuba to include street name, house number, flat number, municipality and province as well as a photograph … and the place and date of their illegal arrival in the Cayman Islands.” 

Havana, within 20 days, shall answer “with its authorization to accept the return of the Cuban citizens.” 

Without naming a time frame, the MOU says Cayman must notify Havana within seven days of the date of the illegal immigrants’ repatriation flight into Havana’s main Jose Marti Airport, detailing both their names and those of the Cayman officials accompanying them.  

No arrival or other tax shall be charged to the repatriates, who must not bring with them any foreign goods or currency. 

“It‘s time the MOU was revised,” said Bruce Smith, deputy chief immigration officer for border control, “but there has been a bit of foot-dragging.” 

Among other things, he pointed to the “extremely costly” nature of holding and returning illegal Cuban immigrants, describing the process as “extremely extravagant.” 

“We have to provide police operations and airfare and there are human rights aspects,” he said, pointing to the costs of room, board and various amenities. 

Mr. Manderson was cautious about the new year talks, saying they would be “in terms of the time it takes to return the refugees, and some of the asylum claims.” 

Despite the MOU, he said, the repatriation process was often prolonged past the point of comfort for local authorities.  

“Normally now, it drags out over many months, and we are hoping it should be speeded, like before.” He declined to say what Cayman officials would ask in terms of timing the capture, processing and repatriation, offering only that “if we can get agreement to a time line, well, that would be fabulous.” 

“We have found the Cubans to be very cooperative,” he said, minimizing potential disagreements, but acknowledged that “the MOU maybe was appropriate in 1999, but it’s not appropriate any longer.” 

In its report of meetings with local officials, The Human Rights Commission pointed out that, under UN Conventions, any refugee had the right to seek asylum, although such claims were difficult to support, requiring distinctions between economic migrants and true political threats of persecution. 

The commission nonetheless sought in its report to ensure that Immigration Department interviews of Cuban arrivals included procedures for asylum applications. 

“The Cayman Islands, like any other country, should not facilitate irregular migration, and there is an obligation to balance migrant control with ensuring fair and appropriate asylum processes,” the commission’s report said.  

While “the Cayman Islands do not support or condone illegal migration,” Mr. Coles wrote, officials should “ensure that timelines set out in the MOU are complied with and to ensure that screening of asylum claimants takes place within a reasonable period of time.” 

Mr. Manderson said, “We have to be very careful that we – under that 1951 UN Convention – are not allowed to advise any government that we are advising their people to seek asylum.” 

While it was unlikely to form part of any MOU, the subject was “a bit of a delicate thing” in any negotiation. 

“We do not want to say ‘we are advising’ people to claim asylum,” he said. 

On the subject of expenses, Mr. Manderson acknowledged the high cost of repatriation procedures, saying that “in the past, many years ago, the Cubans had sometimes sent the cost of airfares.” In new-year talks, he said, “it could be an agenda item.” 

Finally, he said, the penalties for aiding illegal Cuban immigrants arriving in Cayman – fines as high as $50,000 and seven years in prison – was “not going to change. We take this very seriously,” he said, wishing to discourage illegal immigration. 

While no one had ever been prosecuted under the laws prohibiting aid to immigrants, they would remain in force, he said, while accepting the Human Rights Commission recommendation for better public education on the issue. 

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A boat of Cuban migrants moor up off West Bay in May 2013. – PHOTO: NORMA CONNOLLY
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