By Brent Fuller
Cuban migrants arrive at the George Town harbour in this March file photo.
A report that examined various human rights issues surrounding Cuban migrants who arrive in Cayman after fleeing their home country warned that local government may not be following the spirit of the UN convention on refugees, even if it hasn’t violated any specific section of the convention.
Under the Geneva Refugee Convention, Cuban nationals who are determined to be fleeing persecution in their home country can be granted the right to reside in Cayman.
However, the recently released Human Rights Committee report noted that since 1995, no Cuban nationals who have arrived in Cayman by boat have been granted refugee status.
“The current approach to asylum in the Cayman Islands stacks the odds against identifying these persons (potential refugees), and whilst this does not breach any individual article in the Refugee Convention, it does not sit well with the spirit of the convention,” the report states.
There are several problems with the island’s approach to potential refugees, according to the committee’s review.
Cubans arriving on Caymanian shores are advised in Spanish about the repatriation policy. But the HRC review found they are not informed about provisions regarding political asylum.
The Immigration Department has previously noted the vast majority of Cubans who arrive in Cayman are eventually hoping to get to the United States via Honduras. Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson has said most are seeking employment to better their own life and are therefore identified as economic migrants rather than political refugees.
However, the HRC found that the initial interview conducted with Cuban migrants generally asks a series of closed questions, rather than inviting immigrants to tell their entire story. No legal representation is required at these interviews and no recordings of these interviews are kept.
The HRC report states: “If this first interview is to be treated so definitively, consideration ought perhaps to be given to ensuring that there is at least a person available to reaffirm the practical effect of the repatriation policy and to advise on the best course of action at that stage.”
If legal representation is impractical because of the costs, the committee recommends that copies of interviews with detainees be sent to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for review.
The committee is also concerned that the initial decision about migrants’ asylum claims is made by Mr. Manderson, who is appointed by the governor.
“Everyone is entitled to a fair hearing in respect of any determination of their rights,” the HRC report stated. “If the Chief Immigration Officer is acting in a capacity where rights are determined….then a concern could indeed arise.”
The HRC suggests an independent statutory board or an independent adjudicator’s office should be established to deal with asylum applications. The committee also noted that those who may have the potential to obtain refugee status should not be held in the detention centre while their case is being decided.
The report urges the Cayman Islands government to keep a close eye on political developments in Cuba, as much as it is possible to do so.
“If the human rights situation in Cuba was to deteriorate further, it may become necessary to review the entire repatriation policy,” the report states.
The committee admitted it was difficult to determine whether the rights of repatriated Cubans were fully respected. However, at the moment it concluded that those being sent back home were not being tortured routinely. The HRC said the general practice seems to be that repatriated Cubans are interviewed by their government and released within a short time.
The report urged both Cayman and the UK to put pressure on the Cuban government to repeal its illegal exit laws, which carry up to a three year prison sentence for migrants who leave the country without permission.