Saturday marks the United Nations’ 14th annual World Refugee Day, as the Cayman Islands Red Cross celebrates its budding regional partnership with the organization’s High Commissioner for Refugees. The global event on June 20 is marked annually by dozens of local and regional organizations dedicated to looking after the interests of more than 50 million people displaced by war, famine, human rights abuses and, increasingly, climate change.
“The Cayman Islands Red Cross is working closely with UNHCR as well as the Cayman Islands government in our effort to improve the way which we currently deal with refugees here in Cayman,” said Red Cross Director Jondo Obi in a statement.
The UNHCR has no regional representative in the Caribbean, she said, making it clear that “no single agency will be able to address this issue, so it is important to recognize that civil society has an important role to play.”
Partnerships with the High Commissioner have slowly formed regionally in the last two years, said Red Cross Deputy Director Carolina Ferreira, but “with the Cayman Islands only in the last six months to eight months.
“We have a lot to offer and a lot to learn, and our national agenda means it’s time to rethink what we are doing. There is a will to rethink, but now we have to strike while the iron is hot.”
Every year, Cayman processes hundreds of illegal arrivals from Cuba – 24 per month on average in 2014 and four per month in 2013. In 2015, however, as Washington has moved toward diplomatic recognition of Havana, local arrivals have spiked – more than 160 Cuban migrants appeared in Cayman waters in the first three months.
The cost of housing and feeding the arrivals is more than $1 million – before repatriation flights. Migrants who are not detained, however, frequently travel to Honduras, seeking economic opportunity and a chance to move north to the U.S. border.
Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Gary Wong, in charge of processing refugee arrivals, says Cayman has also received migrants from Afghanistan, Syria and Mexico, although the bulk remains Cuban.
He has seen little change in arrival numbers since the Cayman-Cuba signing on April 17 of a new memorandum of understanding on handling refugee arrivals locally.
Ms. Obi says that the regularity of Cuban arrivals has largely inured local residents to the migrants’ plight.
“I think that, due to the fact that it is a somewhat regular occurrence here in Cayman, we don’t often take the time to really think about what it takes to leave one’s home country,” she said. “To pick up and leave everything behind – and oftentimes that includes family, children – is an incredibly difficult decision, not made lightly. It is really brave.” Ms. Ferreira rejected charges that refugees were a drain on social and economic resources: “We talk a lot about that, but it’s transitional. As you start to put your life back together, some people are gong to need assistance,” but few wish to remain dependent on aid.
“People often think that being ‘a refugee’ trumps everything, but think of someone like [Albert] Einstein,” she says. “Being a refugee does not stop knowledge and skills and drive, but once you are ‘regularized,’ who knows what else these people may bring to enhance the community.”
According to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, the exodus of people from Latin America and the Caribbean to Europe has fallen since 2010.
The study shows that in 2012, nearly 182,000 European nationals migrated to Latin American and Caribbean countries, as compared to 119,000 Latin American and Caribbean nationals moving to the EU – a 68 percent decrease from 2007, when LAC migrants to the EU reached historic highs.