The cost of detaining and repatriating illegal immigrants, often moving through the region on makeshift boats, is proving a challenge for many small island nations in the Caribbean, according to a United Nations representative.
Dr. Buti Kale, the deputy regional representative for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said challenges faced in the Cayman Islands are mirrored in neighboring countries.
He said the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas each spent more than US$1 million last year on the issue. According to statistics from a Freedom of Information request late last year, Cayman spent around CI$600,000 to house, feed and repatriate Cuban migrants in 2012 and 2013.
The Cayman Islands, because of its proximity to Cuba, is one of the most affected islands in the region, according to Dr. Kale, who was speaking at the Red Cross in George Town on Thursday evening.
He said the standards mandated by the United Nations, under international treaties, are fundamental. But he acknowledged that doing the right thing could be an expensive business.
“It is not always that countries and territories do have adequate means to provide assistance to these people. That’s when the Red Cross and others have to supplement whatever assistance the government provides,” he said.
A delegation from the Cayman Islands government will travel to Cuba next month to renegotiate the Memorandum of Understanding which commits Cayman authorities to certain enforcement actions and sets out a timetable and shared costs for returning illegal migrants.
The cost of processing, detaining and returning migrants, as well as resettling legitimate asylum seekers, has been an issue for authorities in Cayman.
Wesley Howell, deputy chief officer for Home Affairs with the Cayman Islands government – also speaking at the Red Cross – suggested that detaining illegal immigrants for extended periods of time while awaiting authorization from Cuban authorities to transfer them, without travel documents, adds to the financial challenge.
“We have a group of migrants who arrived on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18 – according to the MOU, they should be repatriated within three to four weeks. They are still here …
“If someone is granted asylum, then what? We have demands on humanitarian needs that exceed the amount that our government is committed to giving our own citizens,” said Mr. Howell.
He added, “Our level of migration is three times percentage-wise what the U.S. has to deal with. As a country with financial constraints, there are limitations on what we can do.”
Dr. Kale, who visited the detention center and met with government officials during his brief visit, acknowledged that many countries are facing financial challenges. He said the Bahamas government works with nonprofit organizations to reduce costs.
“Instead of systematically detaining people, they are working with the Church of God in order to keep people in their shelter,” he said.
Cayman is one of only a handful of countries in the region that has proper detention facilities and a processing system for migrants.
Dr. Kale believes there are issues across the region.
“In some cases, the conditions are substandard. They have to elevated. Yes, it costs money, but it is all about abiding by international standards,” he said.
The United Nations expert also touched on an issue that has troubled some locals – the prohibition, under the MOU, against providing support to boatloads of migrants and helping them on their way.
“There is a unique phenomenon where people are assisted to move on. The position of UNHCR is that when people arrive in an irregular fashion in a country, you have got to screen them …
“If they are going to be assisted in an onward movement, the authorities of the arrival destination have got to be apprised of the imminent arrival, otherwise you have a disorderly movement of people.”
He said it is important to process migrants properly to find out their circumstances and ascertain if they are entitled to asylum. He added that it is good that people in the Cayman Islands want to help, but any assistance has to be managed properly and not impede the official processing.
“If someone is granted asylum, then what? We have demands on humanitarian needs that exceed the amount that our government is committed to giving our own citizens.”
Wesley Howell, Cayman Islands deputy chief officer for Home Affairs