Cayman, Cuba agree to faster repatriation

Officials from Cuba and the Cayman Islands signed a new memorandum of understanding Friday which they say will help speed up the process of repatriating migrants who land illegally in the territory. 

Few details of the new agreement have been unveiled, with Cayman officials stating only that it “outlines a more efficient repatriation process for irregular Cuban migrants.” 

Discussions between the two countries have been ongoing for the past year, with Cayman Islands authorities anxious to reduce the escalating cost of detaining increasing numbers of migrants arriving on Cayman’s shores in makeshift boats. 

A large jump in the number of migrants passing through Cayman in 2015 has put a new focus on the problem with the detention center at Fairbanks approaching maximum capacity throughout March and April.  

More than 160 Cuban migrants were estimated to have shown up in Cayman’s waters in the first three months of 2015, compared with 24 per month on average in 2014, and four per month in 2013. 

The current MOU, signed in 1999, commits Cayman officials to a series of enforcement actions once Cuban migrant boats appear in local waters, including a time-frame for returning the migrants to Havana.  

The signing of the new agreement follows two days of talks at the Government Administration Building between a Cayman delegation, led by Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, and a Cuban delegation, led by Ambassador Rafael Dausá Céspedes, Director of Consular Affairs and Cuban Residents Abroad.  

The delegations also agreed on an annual review of the operation and effectiveness of the memorandum, according to a Cayman Islands Government statement released on Friday night. 

Talks, which began in early 2014 have centered on the speed of the repatriation process, shared expenses and asylum claims. Following the last round of negotiations in September 2014, Mr. Manderson said a new agreement had been drafted. 

“We are confident that the new MOU will better facilitate the return of illegal Cuban migrants from the Cayman Islands, largely due to, among other things, a significant reduction in processing time,” the deputy governor said at that time. 

“This should deter illegal migration from Cuba and, consequently, also reduce costs to the Cayman Islands government incurred in detaining and maintaining the migrants.” 

Repatriations currently take three to six weeks on average and can run to several months, with Cayman bearing the cost of housing and feeding the migrants. 

The Cayman Islands government spent $1.6 million last year on the detention, housing and repatriation of Cuban migrants who arrived illegally on the territory’s shores. The figure is increasing year-on-year. In 2013, the government spent $589,000 on migrant detention, care and repatriation. In 2012, that figure was $300,829. In 2011, it was $26,031. 

A further increase in Cuban arrivals in 2015 has prompted officials to investigate options for increasing the capacity of the Immigration Centre or finding new secure accommodation. 

Officials believe the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba is behind the increase in migrant arrivals in 2015. In the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy shift toward opening up relations between the two countries, many Cubans fear the Cuban Adjustment Act may be suspended or abolished. The Act confers special status for Cubans who make it to U.S. soil, allowing them to qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status, and eventually U.S. citizenship.  

Wesley Howell, deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said concerns that the Act may be abolished appeared to be fueling an increase in the number of migrants trying to reach the U.S.  

Cuban migrants pictured at the Immigration Detention Centre at Fairbanks last week. Most of the inhabitants of the camp were repatriated to Cuba by the end of the week. – PHOTO: JAMES WHITTAKER