The amount the Cayman Islands government spends for the detainment, care, housing and repatriation of illegal migrants has increased from an estimated $270,000 in the 2013/14 budget year to $3.6 million this year.
Adding the $1.75 million spent for the same services during last year’s 2014/15 budget, the government expects to have spent more than $5.3 million on services for migrants within the past 24 months by the time it reaches June 30.
“In a nutshell, the numbers are up as evidenced by overflow to the civic centers,” said Ministry of Home Affairs Deputy Chief Officer Wesley Howell, referencing situations this year where the number of detained Cuban migrants has grown so large that the George Town Immigration Detention Centre can no longer hold them. Community centers in the eastern districts are being used to temporarily house migrants until a number of them can be sent home.
To put the $3.6 million from the current 2015/16 budget year in perspective, that is more than government intends to spend over the next 18 months on rental assistance for needy Caymanians ($2.9 million); more than government expects to spend for care of indigent, elderly and disabled individuals in the next 18 months ($2.1 million); and more than government has budgeted to spend on a residential mental health treatment facility in the next budget ($2.5 million).
It was about three years ago, after a lengthy lull period, that Cayman Islands authorities began noticing a huge influx of Cuban migrants to the islands in numbers not seen since the 1990s when “tent cities” had to be set up in areas of Grand Cayman to house thousands fleeing Cuba.
The recent increase is generally blamed, both by Cayman and U.S. authorities, on statements that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration intended to end the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy toward migrants that America has maintained since the mid-’90s.
The policy requires immediate repatriation, or transfer to another country, for any migrant intercepted at sea. However, if they make it to land, migrants would be given a chance to remain in the U.S. If the policy ends, there are fears that the “dry-foot” opportunity will end.
Most of the Cubans traveling through Grand Cayman or Cayman Brac are on their way to Honduras, eventually intending to seek passage through Central America and Mexico to the southwestern U.S. The migrants can apply for asylum status as refugees in Cayman, but they are typically classed as economic migrants, rather than political asylum-seekers. For countries such as Cayman caught in the middle of the migration, dealing with the problem of landed migrants has led to additional costs.
At last count, the Cayman Islands immigration Department had 116 migrants in custody at various locations. About 60 can be kept safely at the detention center in the Fairbanks area of George Town.
Most of the others are being kept at community centers in the less-populous eastern districts of Grand Cayman. Four other migrants, including a pregnant woman and a juvenile who apparently made a trip with a parent from Cuba this year, are being kept in a hotel, according to prisons officials.
There is little the government can do to reduce the costs of migrant care and housing while they are here. The repatriation process with Cuba can often take months, and typically the migrants are sent back on Cayman Airways planes.
In April 2015, Cuba and the Cayman Islands signed a new memorandum of understanding which was touted as helping to speed up the repatriation process. However, the sheer number of migrants now arriving on Cayman’s shores has overwhelmed the process.