By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
FOREIGN Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell yesterday said the government was concerned with the potential impact changes to the Cuban exit visa policy could have on illegal migration, which he termed as the “most vexing issue” for Bahamians.
The influence of illegal Haitian migrants continues to be the main challenge, according to Mr Mitchell, who noted that the provision for repatriations was increased to “around $2 million” in the 2012/2013 national budget.
After recent talks with the American government, Mr Mitchell said his ministry, in partnership with the Ministry of National Security, is considering land based radar technology to supplement the reported 90 per cent interception rate.
“The most vexing issue for Bahamians is illegal migration, principally from Haiti,” Mr Mitchell said.
He added: “The laws are changing in Cuba with regards to how people can exit that country and so the question we have to be preparing for is whether or not there is going to be any rush for the door as a result of the change of those exit procedures over there.
“It’s a concern, I don’t think you can put it any higher than that because in our own country people are free to move in or out without any exit procedures so the question is what will be the impacts of this.”
In October, the Cuban government announced plans to terminate the exit visa requirement next year January under Migration Law 1312. Promised by president Raúl Castro last year, the new policy means that Cubans will no longer have to apply for permission to travel; however, it also states that graduates will be barred from immediate travel.
Briefing the press at the signing of a letter of intent for increased technical cooperation with the United States, Mr Mitchell said the government would be monitoring the effects of Cuba’s legislative changes through its intelligence arm, led by former Commodore Clifford Scavella. The agreement provides for an estimated $2.1 million from the United States to support drug interdiction efforts; professionalism of the police force; and the judiciary in “the general fight against crime and anti-narcotics”.
“We talked about information sharing with the Americans, they made some suggestions and contributions towards trying to help us organize the National Intelligence Agency. I think there is a better understanding of the policing issues and all of that we’ll be looking at.”
The Immigration department has repatriated 2,200 Haitian nationals between January and October of this year, according to director Jack Thompson, who said the year-end figures were not yet complete.
Mr Mitchell said the government could not understand how migrants were able to get into the country undetected given the integrity and speed of vessels used. However, he noted that American officials have expressed a 90 per cent success rate of the interception of migrant vessels on the high seas as a result of the US and Bahamian partnership.
He said: “What we can’t understand, and we put the issue before our defence force as well, is how people in slow moving boats can launch off the north of Haiti and get all the way up to the middle of the country before being detected.”
“Every time you have a high profile one that gets by, of course the public becomes more agitated.
Mr Mitchell said land-based radar technology would allow for the monitoring of critical landing areas for illegal migrants.
“The radar that we have is just geared toward air cover at the airports, to some extent to Grand Bahama and around the Lynden Pindling International Airport,” he said. The government “will be looking at the question of what is the technology we can actually purchase that could put, for example, a land based radar in Inagua.
Mr Mitchell added: “We have to follow up on the costs, who do you buy it from, how does it work, how effective it is.”