Cuba, Cayman talks set to resume on status of refugees

Representatives from Havana and George Town will meet soon for further negotiations on an agreement regarding treatment and repatriation of Cuban migrants, with Cayman seeking to stem costs likely to exceed the US$1 million from the last government budget year, officials said. 

Wesley Howell, deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs and a member of Cayman’s delegation to the long-delayed talks, said 88 Cubans passed through Cayman in January, eclipsing the 24-per-month average in 2014 and only four per month in 2013. Since late January, more than 75 Cuban migrants have passed through or landed in Cayman Brac. 

The Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas also spent more than US$1 million last year on Cuban refugees. In 2012 and 2013, Cayman spent more than $800,000 to house, feed and repatriate Cuban migrants. 

Refugees detained by the Immigration Department are housed at a detention facility in Fairbanks, which accommodates up to 30 people. However, more than 30 migrants frequently arrive in a single boatload. 

Meanwhile, according to Cuba’s ambassador to Jamaica Bernardo Guanche Hernandez, the U.S. refugee policy known informally as “wet foot/dry foot” remains in place, driving an exodus from Cuba. 

Under that policy – a consequence of the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 – a Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (with “wet feet”) is sent home or to a third country. Those who make it to shore (“dry feet”) get a chance to remain in the U.S. and later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status, and eventually U.S. citizenship. 

“The Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy are still strong incentives for irregular migration from Cuba,” Ambassador Guanche said, “and they have an impact also on the Cayman Islands.” 

In the wake of President Obama’s policy shift toward opening up relations between the two countries, many Cubans fear the Cuban Adjustment Act may be suspended or abolished. 

Mr. Howell said he believes these concerns are likely driving increasing numbers of Cubans to flee.  

He said talks on a new Havana-George Town memorandum of understanding are “progressing via diplomatic channels,” adding they have been “taking longer than expected.” Talks were last held in September 2014. 

“We are hopeful to sign a new agreement with Cuba in the coming months,” he said. 

The agreement currently in effect dates to 1999. It established a seven-day time frame for notifying Havana about refugee arrivals and identifying the individuals involved. There were concerns that any identification might compromise refugee claims for political asylum. 

However, Mr. Howell said, “Repatriations typically take three to six weeks, but can be significantly longer than that, with some repatriations taking up to three to five months.” 

Adding to the delays is what Mr. Howell called a “double approval” process, whereby Cayman establishes the identities of the refugees, but then must wait for Havana to confirm the information. Finally, both sides must agree to the schedule for repatriation flights. 

The flights, all on Cayman Airways, are part of overall processing costs. 

“Cayman Airways for safety reasons have a limit as to how many repatriated migrants can be flown on a scheduled commercial flight with other passengers,” Mr. Howell said. “Therefore, the costs for repatriation can range from a few seats when buying seats on a scheduled flight to Havana … to higher costs when a charter flight is required for larger numbers of migrants. These costs can range from several tickets at approximately US$300 each on a scheduled flight to a charter flight of approximately US$10,000. “All costs are borne by the Cayman Islands government,” he said. 

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