Asylum seeker detentions pose legal questions

Immigration officials receive asylum training.

An influx of asylum applications is putting pressure on the Cayman Islands Department of Immigration to address gaps in staff training and shorten migrant detention times, which can currently drag out for a year or longer.

Prison service officials confirmed that most of the 49 Cuban migrants detained in George Town have requested asylum, providing them legal protections established under the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention.

Immigration staff training will aim to resolve questions about the convention, officially recognized in Cayman’s asylum law. Immigration officials are participating in an intensive two-week course organized by the Governor’s Office and facilitated by a specialist from U.K. Visas and Immigration.

Matthew Forbes, head of the Governor’s Office, said much of the training focus will be on professionalism and expediency.

Facility guards confirmed that several migrants have been held in detention for more than a year. Mr. Forbes said there is no maximum processing time for repatriation to Cuba to allow flexibility in case handling.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recommends nations establish a maximum detention period to avoid excessive holding times.

Commission guidelines state: “Without maximum periods, detention can become prolonged, and in some cases indefinite.”

Prison Director Neil Lavis said during a tour of the George Town immigration center:“Bear in mind that these people were meant to be here for very short periods of time, not lengthy periods of time. I don’t think any of us, including immigration, envisaged that people would be here for a long period of time.”

Migrant detainees have no right to leave the George Town facility, unless accompanied by staff, Mr. Lavis said.

The Department of Immigration delegates center management to the prison service, which took over the duty from a private contractor in 2014. Prison guards work at the facility during overtime hours and on a voluntary basis.

“We are here to detain them. We are ordered by immigration to ensure that they are kept secure, which is what our role is. If they want to go to a church service, we are very reasonable. We try our very best,” Mr. Lavis said.

Article 26 of the Refugee Convention protects freedom of movement and Article 31 provides for non-penalization of asylum seekers.

“Detention can only be resorted to when it is determined necessary, reasonable in all circumstances and proportionate to a legitimate purpose,” according to a UNHCR report on refugee guidelines.

“(Article 31) further provides that restrictions on movement shall not be applied to such refugees or asylum seekers other than those which are necessary.”

Reasons for detention include preventing noncooperation, establishing initial identification, recording preliminary interviews, and protecting public health and national security.

The immigration detention center in George Town houses nearly 50 Cuban migrants.

Inside the center

The center’s 49 detainees share a living space where they sleep on bunk beds. The bedroom is occupied by both men and women, including two pregnant women who were present during a facility tour.

While separate living space is available, it is not in use.

“When the numbers get down around 50, we move them into one or the other side. That allows us to do maintenance work in the entry side,” Mr. Lavis said.

“We also have to be mindful of the public purse. To run two facilities when we could run it on one doesn’t make sense.”

UNHCR guidelines recommend separating male and female populations unless they are within the same family.

“As a general rule, pregnant women and nursing mothers, who both have special needs, should not be detained,” a UNHCR report says. “Alternative arrangements should also take into account the particular needs of women, including safeguards against sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation.”

One female migrant gave birth in January and is now living with a migrant family in George Town. Her housemates include an asylum applicant and a 16-year-old girl, who has not been able to enroll in public school.

The woman said she spent all nine months of her pregnancy in the detention center, despite doctor recommendations that she be moved. She lived in the facility for a reported total of one year and four months. She said she cried when she first arrived at the center because it looked like a prison to her.

Her asylum rejection came eight-and-a-half months into her pregnancy, complicating her appeals process, she said.

The baby’s father was already expatriated to Cuba. The woman has also been ordered for deportation.

Another woman, who is currently nine months pregnant, was awaiting relocation last week out of the facility. She also spent her entire pregnancy in detention.

While case appeals can delay processing times, many detainees in the immigration facility complained that they have not received any response on their case.

One male detainee who has been held for five months in March requested that Governor Helen Kilpatrick review his case.

“We ask God, our great Lord, to open your heart and those of your cabinet to help resolve this matter and to give a positive answer to the great problem that faces Cubans who find ourselves stranded here,” he said.

Another detainee noted the impact of sitting indefinitely in detention.

“No one knows what it feels like to be impotent, to be prisoner without having committed any crime,” he said.

“Many of us left Cuba because of injustice. We left to find freedom, and look at where we find ourselves.”

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