Cuban migrant detention facility becomes ‘prison’

Prison officers will be brought in to guard the Cayman Islands Immigration Detention Centre following several high profile escapes from the low security holding facility over the past 18 months.

Premier Alden McLaughlin announced the change Wednesday during Legislative Assembly, revealing that since January 2013, 141 Cuban migrants had landed in the Cayman Islands illegally. Ninety-eight have since been sent back home and 43 remain in the Immigration Detention Centre in the Fairbanks area of George Town.

“Because of the problems with Cuban migrants, the prison has recently been given the responsibility for the management and oversight of the [center],” Mr. McLaughlin said. Natalie Lavis, a former prison governor in the U.K., has been employed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to assist with the transition.

Also, the premier said meetings set in Cuba for this month to discuss the migrant situation had been delayed until September.

The Cayman Islands maintains an agreement via the U.K. with the Cuban government as to how migrants that land here illegally should be handled and repatriated. That memorandum of understanding has not been updated since 1999.

The wait for repatriation led to a flurry of escapes from the detention center in March and April, according to Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Gary Wong.

“The last few escapes that we’ve been having is because the migrants have said Cuba is taking too long to accept them back,” Mr. Wong said. “So they think they will put pressure [on Cuba] and us [by escaping]. But you and I both know that’s not going to happen.”

Escapes from the migrant center are often viewed in a laissez faire manner by the Cayman community as the Cubans are usually economic migrants and not perceived as a threat. “[Residents] should think about it more seriously than that,” Mr. Wong said. “We don’t know who they are. We don’t know their background. We don’t know what kind of threats they would pose to the people out there.”

The situation escalated to the point where, late last month, some of the migrants began exhibiting threatening behavior toward the security guards that staffed the facility, government officials said.

One of the group jumped the fence and escaped before being captured by prison officers. A second man climbed onto the roof “armed with large rocks” as the flare-up escalated.

Four of the men were arrested as police, firefighters, immigration officers and prison officers wearing helmets and protective vests arrived on scene. The four are being investigated for escaping lawful custody and threats against law enforcement individuals.

The May 22 incident followed a number of escapes from the detention center reported since the beginning of this year. They include:

Jan. 20: A lone migrant fled the center around midday and came back of his own accord that evening.

March 11: Three migrants who had been rescued in the water by a cruise ship that later docked in Grand Cayman fled the detention center and were arrested later that day.

March 17: More than two dozen Cubans ran from the center. All but one were picked up immediately by police and immigration enforcement officials.

March 19: Three migrants escaped from the detention center around 5 p.m. They were not immediately located, but all were eventually rounded up.

April 16: Thirteen migrants ran from detention in the afternoon; 10 were recaptured immediately.