A group of Cayman Islands residents who chartered a vessel to try to bring food and water to migrants on a ramshackle boat say marine police prevented them from assisting the men.
The incident is the latest flash point in an ongoing conflict between public sentiment and government policy on offering assistance to migrants, usually from Cuba, who pass through Cayman’s waters en route to Central America.
John McDow and Jonathan Parchment, who work for Kirk Home Centre, say they were on their way to a job in West Bay Friday when they spotted the small wooden craft, just off shore.
“They were waving these water jugs, holding them upside down to show that they were empty,” said Mr. McDow.
The men’s first instinct was to help, they said. Together with friends, they raised $54 and bought water, bread, spam and corned beef, and basic medicine.
They took the supplies to the Dolphin Discovery dock, but saw the boat being escorted out to sea by marine police. They then borrowed a boat and intercepted the migrants’ boat a few miles offshore.
“The Cubans could see we had food and water and they started jumping up and down, waving and shouting,” said Mr. McDow, but police intervened.
Mr. Parchment said, “They told us if we gave any assistance, they would have to take [the migrants] in to Cayman and send them back to Cuba. We couldn’t even drop it in the water.”
When the men returned to shore, a friend chartered another boat to follow the Cuban boat outside of Cayman’s territorial waters, 12 miles offshore. But the skipper returned later in the afternoon, having been thwarted again in an effort to assist, the men said. Police say the boat did not make it outside territorial waters and they were obliged to intervene.
Mr. McDow said he had previously used a kayak to bring supplies to migrants in a boat who had signaled for help off George Town. He said he thought he was allowed to assist as long as the boat did not land in Cayman.
“We are both fishermen, we know what it is like to be out on a boat even for a few hours without water. We can’t imagine what it is like for several days at sea. We just wanted to help,” Mr. Parchment said.
Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding signed in 1999, and updated in 2015, between the Cayman Islands and Cuban governments, migrants entering Cayman waters cannot be given any assistance and those who land in Cayman must be repatriated to Cuba.
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson told the Cayman Compass that changing the policy of non-assistance would risk Cayman being branded internationally as supporters of illegal immigration.
Mr. Manderson also commented on a Facebook post about Friday’s incident.
He wrote, “Do you know they were Cubans? Were they another nationality trying to get into the USA to cause harm and destruction? Do we really know the truth? The policy of no assistance was made for good reason and is supported by international agencies.
“Giving them a few gallons of water and potentially sending them to their death on the high seas can’t be humane. Our policy is to provide no assistance. They can come ashore and be fed and housed. If they are refugees they can stay, if they are economic migrants, they will go back to Cuba.
“Of course, all that depends if they are really Cubans. Do we really know who they are? What would be the reaction of the USA if we supported terrorists to enter that country. Anyone want to bet their USA visa on the answer?”
Jacqueline Carpenter, spokeswoman for the police service, said both the migrant vessel and local boat were in territorial waters when the Joint Marine Unit prevented the transfer of fuel and other supplies on Friday.
“The actions of JMU officers were fully in line with and in fact required per government policy and the MOU between the Cayman Islands Government and the Cuban Government,” she said. “JMU officers afforded the migrants the opportunity to disembark their vessel and be taken ashore, also per government policy, but they declined to do so, as this would mean being repatriated to their country of origin at some point in the future.”
The Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission has previously looked into the policy and decided it was “harsh, but on balance, the right policy.”
“You can’t encourage people to set off in these unseaworthy boats … knowing that you can come to Cayman and we’ll fuel you up and repair your boats and send you on your way again,” Human Rights Commission chairman James Austin-Smith told the Cayman Compass in a previous interview. “You may not get here in the first place, and that’s contrary to any of our obligations under international law,” he said.
Mr. McDow said he did not understand the logic in this situation. “If they are really concerned about someone going out to risk their lives, why is it OK to send them out there without food and water,” he asked. “How is that better?”