Security concerns persist amid recent Cuban migrant influx

Cuban migrants arriving on Cayman’s shores in the highest numbers experienced in the past decade are creating a security headache for immigration enforcement officials.

Civic Centers in Bodden Town and East End continue to be used as overflow detention centers, with 109 Cubans still held on island despite the fact that 84 migrants have been sent home since Jan. 1.

Bruce Smith, acting chief immigration officer, said the civic centers lacked even minimum containment capacity and warned that officials have security concerns over the growing number of makeshift migrant boats landing in Cayman.

A ramshackle boat carrying Cuban migrants drifts into George Town harbor in March 2015. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY
A ramshackle boat carrying Cuban migrants in George Town harbor in March 2015. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

Following a number of escapes last month, he acknowledged officials have concerns for the general safety of the Cayman community.

“The experience is that these persons are becoming more volatile, desperate and unpredictable,” he told the Cayman Compass.

Mr. Smith added, “We must not assume that these are all Cuban nationals and that they are all going to be passive or submissive in their dealing with authorities when they are informed that they will not be allowed to continue on their tack to the U.S.

“There are also great concerns when immigration officers respond to these situations not having any knowledge of what they are facing or whom they are dealing with.”

Though not yet comparable to the crisis in the ‘90s, when hundreds of migrants camped in tents on land where the Immigration Detention Centre is now situated, the recent influx is putting a strain on the island’s infrastructure.

Mr. Smith said the arrivals in December and January represented the highest numbers experienced in almost 10 years. He said the arrival of two vessels carrying 40 migrants on a single day in January had been particularly challenging.

“The more recent trends confirm single rustic crafts usually arriving particularly in Cayman Brac with between eight and 20 souls or slightly more onboard,” he said. The latest Cuban craft to arrive washed up on the Brac on Tuesday with seven people on board.

Mr. Smith said the level of future boat activity was difficult to forecast, but officials expect such boats to continue arriving.

He said, “We do expect that persons will continue to embark on these dangerous open water journeys. We will maintain our position of not encouraging or assisting in illegal migration and will say to the public that when you assist migrants who arrive onboard unseaworthy or rustic crafts, you may actually be assisting these persons to their deaths.”

It is likely that civic centers will need to be used for the foreseeable future, with capacity at the Immigration Detention Centre limited to around 60.

Asked what the long-term plan was, Mr. Smith said, “Immigration, prison, police, other Cayman Islands Government departments/authorities, particularly ministries and private sector entities, are involved with migrant activity and matters of mass migration management generally. It must be understood within the region and beyond that, while these situations are emotionally sensitive and pulls on human nature to get involved, the Cayman Islands cannot be seen by our neighbors and the world to be encouraging or otherwise facilitating illegal migration. The matter of this continuing activity will be managed consistently and deliberately.”

He urged people to alert authorities rather than attempting to assist migrant vessels.

“We ask the public to not encourage persons in these situations by lending any form of assistance or support and report any and all activity by calling 911 if they are ever approached, observe strange vessel activity or with information generally,” he said.