Cuban migrants arriving at Cayman’s water’s edge present a dilemma that to date has proven intractable: On the one hand, Caymanians are a compassionate people, sympathetic to the Cubans seeking a better life for themselves and their families. On the other, Cayman simply doesn’t have the resources to house, detain or assimilate these refugees into our small society.
Consider the Cayman Compass investigation into the detention of Cuban migrants, published on the front page of Friday’s newspaper.
The story focuses on Yoel, a 38-year-old father of three who boarded a handmade wooden boat in hopes of reaching Honduras and then traveling to the United States. Instead, in May 2016 his voyage ended abruptly in Grand Cayman, where for the past 15 months (and counting) he has been living in the Immigration Detention Centre.
Like nearly all Cuban migrants, Yoel has applied for political asylum, triggering a complex and drawn-out process of adjudication.
In the months leading up to the publication of Friday’s story, Compass journalist Kayla Young had been monitoring conditions at the center and conducting interviews with officials and migrants, including Yoel, whose story stands out because he was partially blinded in one eye following an accident suffered while on a volunteer work assignment at Northward Prison.
While in many ways safe and comfortable, the detention center (currently “home” to 38 migrants) was never designed to be a long-term residence for so many asylum seekers. Problems range from the lack of segregation of male and female “guests” to deficiencies in legal and translation support.
It would be unfair to cast blame upon local officials. From what we have observed, individuals such as Head of the Governor’s Office Matthew Forbes, Prisons Director Neil Lavis, chief officer for immigration Wesley Howell and Deputy Governor Franz Manderson are operating in good faith to make the best of what is an untenable situation.
At its most basic, Cayman’s Cuban migrant problem is this: Our tiny territory does not have the resources, population or infrastructure to accommodate hundreds of political refugees.
In the course of our investigation, we have come up with several questions that may be worthy of consideration:
- Is it necessary to house asylum seekers in a detention facility?
According to international standards, asylum seekers should be detained only as a last resort — i.e. if there is specific reason to fear they may go into hiding or pose a threat to public safety. It may be as straightforward as allowing the migrants to come and go as they please from the existing detention center — a “tear-down-this-fence” solution.
- Should Cayman’s problem with Cuban migrants actually be the U.K.’s problem?
Cayman is a territory, not a sovereign nation. How can Cayman possibly grant any applications for political asylum, which by definition is an international issue? The U.K. signed on to the international conventions, and with that pen stroke, signed Cayman up for an agreement that we do not have the resources to honor.
- Would a third nation be better able to welcome refugees?
Currently, Cuban migrants who are granted asylum in Cayman also obtain permanent residency status. This clearly is not the intent of PR. We have significant concerns about the ability of these new residents (who have no resources, jobs or history in Cayman, and may have extremely limited English language skills) to assimilate into and contribute to Cayman society. Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. are just a few neighboring countries that have a far greater capacity than Cayman to absorb Cuban refugees, who never intended to end up in Cayman when they fled Cuba. Such arrangements would have to be brokered by the U.K., not Cayman officials.
- Why isn’t Cayman’s Human Rights Commission asking these questions?
The commission, chaired by local attorney James Austin-Smith, is charged with promoting the “understanding and observance of human rights in the Cayman Islands.” Yet the commission, and Commissions Secretariat Manager Deborah Bodden, have been unwilling — to the point of being impolite — even to offer meaningful comment on the Cuban migrant issue to the media. If the Human Rights Commission won’t get involved in what may be the most significant ongoing human rights issue in Cayman … why do we even have a commission?
In talking with local officials, they seem to hope that Cayman’s Cuban migrant problem will resolve itself with the revocation of the U.S.’s “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. In other words, that Cubans will stop showing up on Cayman’s doorstep. But hope is not a plan, and it doesn’t help Cayman’s overwhelmed governmental apparatus or the asylum seekers who are here today.