Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cayman’s boat-people

This blog began in 2010 as an offshoot of my weekly newspaper columns. For a while, they ran parallel – often sharing a topic although they were written separately. The newspaper had gone off-line, and an anonymous fan kindly set up this blog.

The most popular recurring subjects of the newspaper columns were unskilled migrant workers and Cuban boat-people. By the time the blog began, those crusades had pretty much run out of steam. They actually hadn’t achieved much, in the face of hostility from our local politicians and bureaucrats.

Domestic servants have always been shamefully exploited by some employers and the Immigration authorities, who regard them as little better than slaves. By law, they are indentured servants – voluntary ones, but highly vulnerable to exploitation. Employers have the legal power to short-pay them and steal from them, and deport them if they complain about that or anything else. Countless crimes go unprosecuted because witnesses have been deported.

Only a small proportion of employers are guilty of such things, but those who do are not held accountable. The guilty ones form a formidable voting bloc, and politicians are always afraid of formidable voting blocs. Jamaican female domestic servants call their conditions of employment “near slavery”, and my columns popularized the term. The Immigration authorities and the exploiters have cleaned up their act somewhat since then, but there are still too many holdouts.

Cuban refugees on ramshackle rafts and boats cross Cayman waters on their way to Honduras, where they join a long-established underground railway up to the USA. To please the Cuban government, our British police force impounds those who physically land in Cayman, and flies them to Havana. There they are excluded from the workforce, so many of the returnees must try their luck again on the next ramshackle craft they can find.

Our Police refuse help to those who pass by – however unlikely they may be to reach Honduras alive. Denying water, food, fuel and medicine to unseaworthy boats contravenes the international law of the sea – a law that saved countless native Caymanians in the islands’ seafaring days. Police boats fend off freelance rescue-attempts; policemen onshore confiscate water etc brought down to the boats, and arrest the guilty parties.

At least, they used to do. They are more observant now of their human-rights obligations – ever since the visit (at my invitation) of a representative from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A sympathetic reporter and I met her off the plane, and told her the truth of the situation before any government officials could get to her and lie to her. Today, our authorities turn a blind eye to breaches of the formal Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba as often as not. Ours was a meagre victory, but better than nothing.

 At the time of the IOM visit, I was a member of a government-appointed Human Rights Committee. I did what I could there, always well aware that they had appointed me purely to keep me quiet. The other appointees blocked my every attempt to improve the lot of the boat people and the migrants in indentured service. As ordered, they concentrated on trivialities and technicalities. In the end, I quit in a burst of publicity.

 There is a Human Rights Commission, now, that operates under the same terms of reference that the Committees did. It pretends to care, but doesn’t advance the cause. Ah well, what can you do? Cayman is the regional headquarters of MI6 (Britain’s CIA), so human rights aren’t much of a priority for our colonial administrators back in London.