MIAMI—In the face of a surge in Cuban migrants arriving in the United States, Cuba is accusing Washington of politicizing migration policy between the two countries and encouraging “illegal and unsafe” migration from the island.
Cuba has long objected to the Cuban Adjustment Act, the “wet foot/dry foot” policy and a parole program that makes it easy for Cuban doctors to come to the United States. But this year—as 46,635 Cubans have arrived at US ports of entry—its objections have become more pointed.
In the latest statement, released on Sunday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Cuban government said US policy toward Cuban migrants violates “the letter and spirit” of US-Cuba Migration Accords that were signed in 1994-95.
On Saturday afternoon 14 Cubans who were deported from Colombia arrived in Havana aboard a Colombian air force plane. Those in the group left Cuba legally, said the Minrex statement, and went to various countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But in their quest to arrive in the United States, they became “victims of human traffickers and delinquent bands operating in the region,” the statement said.
“These citizens are victims of the politicization of the migration theme on the part of the United States government, which stimulates illegal and unsafe migration.”
The Cubans sent back to the island were part of a group of some 1,800 migrants who had been stranded in the Colombian town of Turbo, near the border with Panama, trying to figure out a way to continue their journey north to the United States.
But in recent days more than 1,350 undocumented migrants have been deported from Colombia or left on their own in the face of pending deportation. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that there were only about 350 migrants left in Turbo.
Most of the migrants who had congregated in the Colombian port city were Cuban and Haitian, but there also were Africans and Asians in the group, according to a survey in late July by the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office.
In May Panama closed its border to the migrants.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States, expressed deep concern about the vulnerability of the stranded group, which includes pregnant women, as well as children and newborns.
The commission said on Monday that it has received information that some migrants, frustrated at the lack of legal or safe migration channels, have turned to clandestine routes, including through the jungle region of the Darien Gap, making them vulnerable to abuse and extortion by criminal organizations, smugglers and sometimes police.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela told reporters in Panama City last week that there are around 800 migrants in the swampy Darien Gap where guerrilla groups and smugglers are active.
On Tuesday he said Panama would not permit anyone to die in the jungle and will be giving migrants already in the country en route to the United States humanitarian assistance.
“The fact that migrants are turning to irregular channels and to traffickers is explained by the absence and shortage of legal and safe migratory channels. We call on the American states to take immediate action to open up channels that allow these people to migrate legally and safely,” IACHR President James Cavallaro said.
Before Colombia continues deportations and voluntary exits, the commission said it should identify migrants with special need for protection, such as asylum-seekers, refugees and those victimized by human traffickers, and decide cases individually.
Among tools that countries in the Americas can use to alleviate the migrant crisis are humanitarian-admission programs, family-reunification visas, student scholarships, labor mobility programs, private sponsorships and refugee resettlement programs, the commission said.
Not only do US migration policies stimulate illegal and unsafe migration, the Cuban government said, but the United States admits Cubans, even if they enter US territory by illegal means, “contrasting with the treatment received by other Latin American emigrants who are rejected.” However, South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “We should be clear: The Castro regime is the only government responsible for the Cuban people’s desperate search for freedom.”
She was joined by fellow South Florida Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart in sending a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asking that the Cubans stranded in Turbo be given access to legal counsel and have their needs—including adequate food, water and medical attention—met.
“We have been informed that the group has endured kidnappings by Colombian guerrillas, persecution and indiscriminate deportation by the Colombian authorities without allowing them the opportunity to request asylum,” they said in the letter.
The United States maintains it has no plans to change its Cuban migration policies and is committed to safe, orderly and legal migration. The United States and Cuba met in Washington for their biannual migration talks on July 14, but the State Department only released a brief statement that said little beyond the assertion that both the US and Cuban delegations reiterated the importance of the migration accords.
A Pew Research Center analysis of government data shows that during the first 10 months of this year, 46,635 Cubans have entered the United States through ports of entry—already surpassing the total of 43,159 for all of last fiscal year. Arrivals for fiscal 2015 were up 78 percent over 2014, when 24,278 Cubans entered the United States.
“The surge in the number of Cubans entering the country began in the months immediately following the president’s” December 2014 announcement that the United States and Cuba were working toward normalizing relations, Pew said. Many migrants are fearful that with rapprochement, preferential migration policies for Cubans will eventually end.
There also has been a surge in the number of Cubans trying to reach US shores by sea. Under the US wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans who make it to shore are permitted to enter the United States but those who are interdicted at sea are generally sent back to Cuba.
In fiscal 2015, the US Coast Guard picked up 2,927 Cubans at sea. As of Monday, the number of interdictions this fiscal year stood at 4,179. Migrant flow numbers, which include landings, interdictions and those dissuaded from continuing their voyages, so far this year have reached 5,856, compared to 4,473 for the entire fiscal year 2015.
Image credits: AP/Desmond Boylan