Two types of boats tend to cruise Cuba’s Gulf of Guacanayabo, where the country’s longest river, the Rio Cauto, flows westward into the Caribbean Sea.
The first category, legal vessels, includes government and private fishing expeditions that survey these waters for oysters.
The second, clandestine, is what brought Yoel, a 38-year-old father of three, to the valley in early 2016.
A native of nearby Manzanillo, Yoel knew this rural zone to be a frequent launching point for migrants escaping eastern Cuba. From this gulf, boaters embark on a direct route to Cayman’s Sister Islands, where they can replenish food and water supplies before departing for Honduras and eventually the United States.
It was Yoel’s third attempt to escape Cuba. If he had succeeded, he hoped to join 36,000 other Cuban migrants who entered the U.S. that year near Laredo, Texas, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded two-thirds of Cuban arrivals to the U.S. in 2016.
Instead, Yoel’s journey ended in Grand Cayman. On May 6, 2016, Yoel and 42 others were detained in South Sound, then brought to George Town’s Immigration Detention Centre. More than a year later, most of Yoel’s fellow travelers have been repatriated to Cuba, but Yoel remains, awaiting appeal on a twice-rejected asylum petition.
Migrants in Cayman
Yoel is one of 38 men and women who live in the center under the management of Her Majesty’s Prison Service. One other migrant is being held at Northward prison for attempting to escape from the detention center. Several other Cuban migrant families with children live in housing paid for by government.
So far this year, 98 migrants from the center have been repatriated.
While around 140 migrant arrivals in eight months may seem small in comparison to the tens of thousands in the U.S., chief officer for immigration Wesley Howell pointed out that proportionate to the population, the Cayman Islands bear a greater burden than its immense American neighbor.
In past years, repatriating migrants to Cuba was a relatively simple and quick process. More recently, however, nearly every Cuban migrant who lands in Cayman claims he or she is a political refugee, sparking a potentially complex and drawn-out evaluation of whether the individual does in fact qualify for asylum under international convention.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Cayman immigration officers use this definition to assess asylum seekers during intake.
“The number of Cuban migrants that are claiming asylum now is unprecedented. It’s higher than it’s ever been. The majority of those, on appeal, are denied … but they are using up the resources,” Mr. Howell said.
These asylum claims have landed immigration and prison staff in uncharted territory. Staff must now grapple with questions over extensive detention times, access to legal counsel, migrant medical care and translation support.
Since 2006, a total of 37 Cuban migrants to Cayman have been granted asylum. They have permanent residence status.
Yoel’s case is one of many that have been brought to the attention of immigration and Prison Service staff in recent months, drawing scrutiny to his 15-month detention and a government work injury that severely impaired his sight in one eye.
A Jehovah’s Witness in Cuba
Yoel comes from the rural outskirts of Manzanillo, a port city of 130,000 in the east Cuban province of Granma, named after the iconic 60-foot diesel-powered yacht that brought Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara and their nascent forces from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. The Granma’s voyage carried the band of 82 revolutionaries around Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, across the leeward side of Cuba (skirting Cayman’s Sister Islands), and after a week at sea, landed at Playa Las Coloradas, 60 miles southwest of Manzanillo.
Born under the Castro regime, Yoel earned his living in Manzanillo buying pork and goat meat in the countryside and reselling it at market. That was not recognized as an “official” form of employment by the Cuban government.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, Yoel disagreed with accepting an obligatory work assignment from the government. He said many of his problems began here.
His decision to refuse official employment landed him in jail for five months for “disobedience.”
“The people from the work tribunal look for a job for you. The tribunal found me a grounds job. I went for the first time and said I wasn’t going to work in that crew, that I bought and sold pork and goat, that I have three kids,” he said.
“That started the same situation as before. But I can’t accept [a base salary] because I have three children. Every year they need backpacks and shoes.”
Yoel said his brushes with government and law enforcement have been documented and those who doubt his story need only request his paperwork.
Because Yoel is an asylum seeker, however, simply calling Cuba and requesting his file is not an option – it would tip off the Cuban authorities he seeks to avoid.
Thus, much of his retelling of life in Cuba relies on anecdotal accounts.
He said he faced constant harassment in Cuba for his rejection of government work.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses are no longer banned in Cuba as they once were, congregations continue to face resistance. The U.S. State Department found in its 2016 International Religious Freedom Report that the Cuban government continued to control many aspects of religious life.
Some applications to officially register Jehovah’s Witnesses’ kingdom halls have been delayed since 1994. Members reported authorities monitored their movements, telephone calls, visitors and religious meetings.
An estimated 96,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses live in Cuba.
“In the past, they jailed us. The children don’t wear [patriotic] uniforms and they don’t salute national symbols,” Yoel said.
“That’s why I take the risk. I don’t vote. I don’t participate in political activities. I am not in agreement with the system.”
In the years 2015 and 2016, emigration to the U.S. from Cuba spiked, reminiscent of mass exoduses from the Communist island in 1980 and 1994. As the Obama administration worked during its final months to normalize relations with Cuba, many Cubans began to fear the door to the U.S. would soon close.
When Yoel set sail for the U.S., he did not know he was in the twilight of the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.” This vestige of the Clinton era offered permanent residency to Cubans who touched U.S. soil, at least until the policy’s repeal in January.
Yoel said he decided he needed to escape the country and find a new path for his family after his release from jail on probation for good behavior. He feared that if he remained in Cuba, he would be jailed once again for refusing government-mandated work.
He went underground. For months, he did not return home, where he feared the police might come look for him. After his supplies from one boat were confiscated, he feared police had found the ID card hidden in his Bible.
“I stayed in the woods. There are no houses for 30, 40 kilometers in Rio Cauto. I stayed there, eating [foraged] oysters. I had been there for 11 days when I bumped into a group of people with a boat,” he said.
Suspicious of his motives, the group initially threatened to tie Yoel up and leave him in the woods. He made a peace offering, however: ply boards and screws to finish building the vessel.
With the crew’s acceptance, he joined the team in finishing a hand-built “chalupa,” a small, wooden boat commonly used by migrants.
Five days later, the group of 48 was ready to sail.
The motor was fashioned from the engine of a tractor. The humble vessel was christened, “La Potencia,” meaning “Power.”
Of the weeklong journey at sea (the same duration of the Granma’s voyage), Yoel said, “There was some vomiting, people who were in bad shape. The women were crying.
“But I was calm because I knew I was freeing myself from the empire.”
When the boat reached Little Cayman, 190 miles away, five migrants disembarked, leaving 43 to continue the journey.
When the overloaded and jury-rigged vessel approached Grand Cayman, it encountered poor weather, experienced difficulties and eventually landed in South Sound near Walkers Road on May 6. Yoel and the others were detained by local authorities.
For weeks after the disembarkation, Yoel’s boat lay abandoned on the beach, still laden with 27 full containers of fuel, the wooden vessel deteriorating in the pounding surf, before local officials removed it.
Life in the detention center
Even though he has been confined to the George Town detention center for 15 months, Yoel said he has been amazed by the country and the hospitality of its people overall.
He felt comfortable in the detention center and content to know he had left his country.
In the center, Yoel receives daily meals, donated clothes, shelter and a bunk bed. An open-air patio provides space for detainees to socialize and stretch their legs – at least within the confines of the barbed-wire fence.
In a common bedroom shared by male and female migrants, white sheets hang from bunks, dividing spaces and creating some semblance of privacy. Many have personalized their makeshift dividers with messages written in marker, the majority praising God and others providing testament to previous migrants who passed through the facility.
At first, Yoel didn’t mind living in the center. He felt confident the accommodation would be temporary and soon his case would move forward.
As he settled in, awaiting the outcome of his application for asylum, he joined a voluntary work crew to pass the time, painting, cutting weeds and performing other tasks for the Prison Service. In exchange, Yoel earned points, the equivalent of $15 per week, that he could use at the detention center store for snacks or phone cards.
He felt everything was going well for him until five months into his detention, when he suffered a work accident that blinded him in his left eye.
“I had a work accident at the men’s prison. I was clearing brush that day without any safety gear. I hit a stick or a rock that split my retina, which meant I had to be sent urgently to Jamaica. But they didn’t move me urgently. They waited seven days and I had to spend seven days sleeping upright because the doctor told me I had to sleep that way.”
Government authorities dispute Yoel’s account of the accident and their response.
Yoel said he was not issued safety gear, a detail contested by the Prison Service.
One government official said Yoel was issued gloves and goggles, but never used either. Another said he wore the goggles and then likely removed them.
Prisons Director Neil Lavis said no CCTV footage of the accident exists.
When asked if migrant workers receive safety training, Mr. Lavis said, “They are operating a weed whacker. There is only a degree of training, skill level that it takes to do that. There is no requirement for them to work. They want to work because they get bored….
“The officer who was in charge of the party that day is a very competent officer. He assured me he was issued safety goggles and was wearing safety goggles. He said he’d actually seen him put them on. Whether or not he decided to take them off afterwards, I don’t know.”
Through months of doctors’ visits, Yoel said he was never provided a translator. Chief Officer Howell said no translator was at the August visit.
“I still haven’t gotten the details as to why that individual didn’t have a translator at that doctor’s visit. There are several doctors of Cuban descent who have been the ones in public health and the regular healthcare line that act as liaisons,” Mr. Howell said.
Lack of translation support outside of the detention facility has been a leading concern for migrants. Yoel said he was promised an interpreter during his trip to Jamaica, where HSA arranged for him to meet with a specialist eye surgeon. An interpreter never appeared on that trip or for subsequent appointments in George Town.
During an appointment at the HSA Lions Eye Clinic in early August, Yoel asked a bilingual Cayman Compass journalist to translate for him during an appointment. This was his first opportunity to have his case explained to him in his native language.
Before entering the doctor’s office, Yoel said, “I still don’t know what they did to me. I don’t know what they put [in my eye]. According to the doctor in Jamaica, they put in a seal but I don’t know what that is. I don’t understand.”
Findings from the consultant ophthalmologist in Kingston, Jamaica, have also been a point of contention.
Yoel said he never suffered vision problems before the accident, which immediately left him blinded. After assessing Yoel in October, however, the Jamaican clinic reported to HSA that the patient’s retinal detachment had been a long-standing issue “with recent progression.”
This assessment was not relayed to Yoel in Spanish until his appointment in August, 10 months later.
The 38-year-old wept as he learned he would never regain complete vision in his left eye.
He became visibly upset as an HSA doctor told him his vision problem was the result of a chronic condition rather than the result of his traumatic injury. This is not what Yoel understood during his initial assessment and not what he had been led to believe for the greater part of a year.
“That sort of detachment isn’t caused by trauma. It’s a chronic detachment. Certainly in the notes we received from Jamaica, it was confirmed it had been a long-standing detachment, probably over many years,” the doctor said during the August appointment.
The doctor, who was not the original attending physician, said the accident may have exacerbated Yoel’s condition. While Yoel’s vision did improve after surgery, his sight remains limited. He cannot read most standard text sizes and cannot distinguish details such as facial characteristics.
The vision in his eye is so poor that the HSA doctor did not believe glasses would benefit him.
Reforming migrant treatment
Hong Kong-based lawyer Mark Daly, who is recognized as a leading expert in international human rights and migrant issues, said lack of translation support is just one of many access issues that disadvantage migrants.
“That’s critically important. There are a whole host of fairness issues. Being a lawyer, what’s foremost on our list is making sure you have legal access, but also proper translation and proper training for the ones making the decisions, and the proper appeal procedure,” he said.
Currently about 10,000 people are seeking political refugee status in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a population of more than 7 million and, like Cayman, a legal system based largely on English common law.
A primary issue that arises in relation to asylum seekers is access to legal counsel. Like many migrants, Yoel has limited resources to hire a lawyer. After his surgery in Jamaica and another rejection of his asylum application, Yoel repeatedly asked to speak with Cayman’s Human Rights Commission with the hope it could help him find legal aid.
“A big problem, and we have it here [in Hong Kong], is access to justice and access to lawyers. One of the big cases we won here in Hong Kong is the case of [client] FB. It’s a case we won, a huge case, because it said you cannot fairly have a refugee determination system unless you are provided a lawyer at public expense,” Mr. Daly said.
“The Hong Kong government didn’t appeal it, so that meant that now the Hong Kong government spends to pay lawyers to represent asylum seekers.”
Currently, migrants in Cayman do not qualify for a publicly appointed lawyer through the legal aid system, an issue that is now under review by the Department of Immigration.
Yoel did not know this, however, when he started an 11-day hunger strike in May, protesting to speak with Cayman’s Human Rights Commission. He said a woman did finally speak with him and had him fill out paperwork. Yoel said he never heard from her again.
Neither the Human Rights Commission nor the Department of Immigration responded to a request for comment on this account.
In July, detainees made a plea to government to provide legal counsel and reduce holding times, currently surpassing a year or longer. Officials have said migrant appeals often extend detention times. The increased number of migrants seeking asylum has also contributed to bottlenecks. Migrants who do not seek asylum are typically repatriated to Cuba in a matter of days or weeks.
A letter, signed by 30 migrants, collected by detention center staff and stamped as received on July 27 by the Ministry of Home Affairs, alleges migrants have not been provided adequate legal information on their rights and that many are suffering psychologically from the excessive detention periods.
“We manifest that we do not even have access to documentation where we could get some understanding of our situation as immigrants or refugees and logically we cannot access any of the rights that we supposedly should have as human beings,” the letter states.
“We testify that none of us have had an evaluation by legal defense and in this state of ignorance, we face judgement that will affect the rest of our lives.”
The letter outlines three requests by migrants: that government offer legal counsel to refugees; that a time limit be established for processing; and that government consider allowing migrants to solicit a humanitarian visa from another country, such as Mexico or Panama.
In response to concerns about the migrants, the Prison Inspections Board assessed the center this month and has made a series of recommendations to improve facility management.
Chief officer for immigration Wesley Howell relayed recommendations, including:
- A written policy and procedure manual to be given to detainees upon arrival, explaining the processes
- Training for immigration staff on how to handle asylum seekers and refugees
- More detailed on-site reporting
- Legal aid for those who go to court, and
- Translators who can travel off site with detainees.
“We are meeting on those subjects now. Some of the questions raised will end up with quick implementation and some will take longer. The matter of legal aid, we’ve already reached out to Judicial. They have a formal system set up for persons who require legal aid for criminal matters. What we propose to do is to use their system with our funding to provide legal assistance,” Mr. Howell said.
The idea of sharing “know your rights” guidelines with irregular migrants upon arrival was shared with Cayman’s Human Rights Commission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2014. At that time, the UNHCR offered assistance, if requested, to develop such guidelines, or to train staff in asylum-related matters.
The Human Rights Commission also recommended in June 2016 that such a manual be written. In a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, HRC proposed “comprehensive, written, policies and procedures be drafted and implemented as a matter of priority.”
Mr. Daly, the Hong Kong lawyer, said migrant detention sits at the heart of the problem in Cayman. UNHCR guidelines clearly establish detention to be an exceptional measure, rather than a default method, he said.
“The thrust of those is that detention is a last resort. We’ve got to get out of this idea that it’s routine to detain people. It’s a last resort. If they are going to abscond and not attend their refugee hearing somehow, if they’re a national security threat, OK. But generally you don’t detain,” he said.
In Hong Kong, asylum seekers are no longer held in detention but monitored through a community release program.
“I’ve been in Hong Kong 23 years. Most of that has been spent taking groundbreaking test cases against the Hong Kong government and forcing the Hong Kong government, through those test cases, to set up a refugee determination system, including laws on detention and everything else. The government, as a result of reaction to litigation, has been forced to set it up,” Mr. Daly said.
“In this growing world of refugee movement, you want to have a fair system, but you also want to have an efficient system. You don’t want to be overburdened. If you are too nice, potentially a lot of people are going to come.”
Moving forward with appeals
Cayman officials hope to process all 39 migrants in detention, one serving a three-month sentence at Northward, by the end of the year. In recent weeks, one applicant was granted asylum.
Cayman’s remaining migrant population poses capacity challenges for the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, which must juggle work permit and permanent residency cases with asylum claims.
Yoel is currently waiting on the Grand Court to review his asylum application, this time with the help of a lawyer paid for with family savings.
“I am appealing to the Justice Tribunal. I ask them to please closely reconsider my case given that if I am returned to Cuba, my life will turn into hell due to the Cuban authorities. I fear even more for my children who are young, 2 and 3 years old. They live alone with my mother, since unfortunately, their mother is mentally ill,” Yoel stated in a handwritten appeal in July 2016.
The initial assessment of Yoel’s case, delivered in July 2016, determined he did not present a well-founded fear of persecution and therefore did not meet the criteria for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Mr. Howell said a proposal is currently under review to establish a separate asylum appeals tribunal to address bottlenecks and process asylum claims.
“That’s sort of a longer-term solution because you have to pass legislation, bring it into force, appoint the board members to get them trained and ready to hear appeals,” Mr. Howell said.
Until then, or unless they decide to drop their appeals for asylum, all Yoel and the 38 other Cuban migrants can do is wait, passing the time by undertaking essentially volunteer work, engaging perhaps in the occasional protest, and allowing themselves to indulge in what they felt was forbidden in their “madre patria” of Cuba, that is, to hope.
Editor’s note: Enterprising Cayman Compass reporter Kayla Young, who is bilingual, spent months monitoring conditions at the Immigration Detention Centre and interviewing migrants and officials for this story.
Compass editors made the decision not to publish Yoel’s full name or his photograph because of his tenuous legal situation involving the Cayman and Cuban governments.