A Cuban migrant detained in the Cayman Islands since December 2016 was granted asylum Wednesday by the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, concluding a year-long legal battle in Cayman’s legal system.
The man said he was awaiting word from government on his forthcoming release from George Town’s Immigration Detention Centre and expected to be transferred soon to a residence in Grand Cayman, where he now has the legal right to live and work.
The migrant arrived with a group by boat to Cayman Brac on Dec. 6, 2016. The group had motor problems in Little Cayman, where their vessel became trapped in the reef. After 11 days hiding out, the migrant took a plane to Grand Cayman, where he turned himself in to immigration authorities following a short period on the streets.
“During that time, I got to know the culture and the freedom that exist on these islands, until I turned myself into immigration on Dec. 20, 2016,” he said in a hand-written letter to the Compass in March 2017.
The political refugee made headlines in July after escaping the detention center, where he was held for more than a year while his asylum case was processed. Magistrate Valdis Foldats sentenced him to three months in Northward Prison for the incident.
At the time, the migrant called into question Cayman’s extensive detention periods for asylum seekers, which are currently nearing two years for some applicants.
In the days before his escape and seven months into his detention, he shared his frustration over the slow processing of migrant cases, telling the Compass, “I have already spoken on various occasions with immigration officials at the center that I want to present myself before the court. They haven’t given me a response. Their excuse is that there are people that have been here for more time than me and that I have to wait.”
Legal experts have questioned the legality of Cayman’s routine detention of asylum applicants, who are held in a facility by the Fairbanks women’s prison and managed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service. While cases trickle through Cayman’s system of boards and courts, applicants are held under lock and key and are not permitted to leave the detention center without staff supervision.
HSM lawyer Alastair David, who took on the migrant’s case, said the practice appeared to clash with international law.
“In reality, none of these asylum seekers would be in detention in the U.K.,” Mr. David said.
In August, Hong Kong-based lawyer Mark Daly also cast doubt on the practice.
Mr. Daly pointed to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ guidelines that 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.
After news of the migrant’s approval broke Wednesday, the applicant expressed surprise as well as fear for what the future holds. He hoped to find work in the Cayman Islands and to make up for time lost during his detention.
Mr. David said the migrant’s history of political activism in Cuba made him a strong applicant for refugee status and enabled him to prove a well-founded fear of persecution, in accordance with criteria established by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“HSM were very happy to act for this individual to ensure that his right to remain in the Cayman Islands was protected and that he did not return to Cuba where he faced the real risk of being persecuted. We are very pleased to see that the IAT [Immigration Appeals Tribunal] considered all the evidence and reached what we believe to be the appropriate decision,” Mr. David said.
For detainees still awaiting word on their cases, Wednesday’s news brought mixed emotions. One migrant said it was a relief to receive good news, amid all of the bad the applicants had endured.
“He is like a brother to us,” said one detainee about the migrant.
On Friday, four other migrants expected to be repatriated to Cuba. Two women, a mother and a daughter detained in George Town for longer than a year, said they had elected to return to Cuba because they could not afford to pay a lawyer and appeal their cases. The women said they had also been detained in Cuba because of their political activism and for circulating pro-democracy pamphlets.
Asylum seekers in the Cayman Islands are not granted access to legal aid, meaning migrants must take on their own legal expenses.
The Department of Immigration indicated in August last year that it was working to address this issue, alongside a list of other concerns regarding migrant management. Neither the Department of Immigration nor the Prison Service responded to requests for follow-up, submitted to both departments in December and again this month.