Dozens seek political asylum in Cayman

Only one person granted asylum since 2011

 

Though the Cayman Islands Immigration Department has interviewed more than 100 people who have applied for political asylum since 2011, only one person has been granted asylum. 

The vast majority of those applying for asylum have been Cuban nationals.  

According to Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith, a total of 115 people were interviewed by immigration officers between 2011 and this month. The data show 24 interviews conducted in 2011; 23 in 2012; 42 in 2013; and 26 so far this year.  

“Out of that number, only one person was granted asylum,” Mr. Smith said.  

Others may have applied for the status but did not proceed to the formal interview stage with the Immigration Department’s representatives.  

Mr. Smith said Cayman has maintained extensive and specific rules for asylum applications that involve written or verbal applications made to an immigration officer who then performs an initial assessment of the request.  

If the review approves the application for further consideration, a formal interview is conducted with the applicant, the immigration officer and a translator (if needed).  

“The date and time of the interview are given priority and are conducted as soon as practicable,” Mr. Smith said. The applicants’ information and identity are kept secret so their alleged persecutors will not be aware of the asylum-seekers’ intent.  

Mr. Smith said follow-up interviews may be conducted over a period of days, if necessary, during which the interviewee is asked to be as specific as possible about the persecution he or she alleges is occurring.  

Once the interview and all evidence, if there is any, has been collected, it is forwarded to the chief immigration officer for a final determination. If the application is refused initially, there is a right of appeal to what Mr. Smith called a “specified appeals body.” The nature of applications for political asylum is such that specifics of the process must be kept secret to avoid those seeking asylum from being subjected to retribution if their applications are refused and they are forced to return home.  

The asylum application process is one of the issues under discussion among officials from Cayman, the U.K. and Cuba as they seek to renegotiate a memorandum of understanding, signed on April 15, 1999, between the Cayman Islands and Cuba that sets out how the Cayman Islands handles repatriation of Cuban citizens.  

Cayman generally does not consider most of the Cubans who inadvertently land here as refugees, as the term is defined under international conventions. The travelers, mostly men, are usually thought to be trying to get to Honduras and then on through Central America to the United States to find work.  

Following a lengthy review of the issue, the Human Rights Commission recommended in late 2012 that the deputy governor and attorney general rework the memorandum of understanding with Cuba.  

“The commission is most concerned that the [memorandum] does not indicate that repatriation is not actually the default position of the Cayman Islands government,” according to a summary of issues included on the HRC’s website. “[It] does not portray that refugees are given the opportunity to apply for and engage in a process to seek asylum.”  

The commission also recommended that law enforcement officials embark on a public education campaign to inform people about the intent of Section 109 of the Immigration Law, which pertains to human smuggling. The section makes it an offense “whether for financial or material benefit or not” for a person to assist or facilitate the transportation, harbouring or movement into or out of the Cayman Islands. Sentences of up to seven years in prison can be given upon conviction under the section.  

Costly issue  

The Cayman Islands government spent more than US$1 million during the last budget year on detaining, housing and repatriating Cuban migrants, Premier Alden McLaughlin revealed in September. A large part of the reason for the high cost involved the time it takes to process asylum applications and subsequent repatriations.  

The premier said Cayman, like many other Caribbean countries, faces illegal immigration issues which it does not have the proper resources to address. 

“With the small population of the Cayman Islands, the per-capita rate of illegal migration exceeds that of most other countries, including the United States,” Mr. McLaughlin said.  

In addition, costs of processing asylum-seekers, as opposed to economic migrants who land illegally, also increased during the last budget year, Mr. McLaughlin said. 

Other reasons for the increased costs are that hundreds of migrants landed here on makeshift boats over the past 18 months. Consequently, there was a need for more repatriations, as well as additional expenses for housing and medical care while the individuals were waiting to be sent home. 

The Immigration Department recently added security officers to help prevent a recurrence of escapes from the George Town detention center where illegal migrants are kept, further driving up costs. 

“One of the major items on the agenda [in the Cuba discussions] is a reduction in the repatriation time for those migrants who do not have a valid claim to asylum,” Mr. McLaughlin said. 

Brac-Cubans

Three of 18 Cuban migrants on board this boat that stopped briefly in Cayman Brac last week later opted to discontinue their journey when they arrived on Little Cayman. The others continued on their way. – PHOTO: ED BEATY

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