The Bahamas government Thursday started — then stopped — the repatriation of 24 undocumented Cuban migrants, including eight who have been offered asylum in Panama, according to a Miami group that has been supporting the Cubans.
The 24 were told early Thursday that they were being returned to Cuba, handcuffed and put on buses at the Migrant Detention Center in Nassau, said Democracy Movement chief Ramón Saúl Sanchez, who on Monday called off a hunger strike in favor of the migrants.
“We immediately contacted the U.S. and Panamanian government and others and just 15 minutes ago we learned the repatriation had been stopped and that the people are back in the center’s dining room,” he told El Nuevo Herald Thursday afternoon.
“At least we stopped the repatriation for now, although we retain the option of renewing the hunger strike,” Sánchez said.
But Sanchez said late Thursday that his group has been told the detainees will be repatriated on Friday.
The Cubans’ status was scheduled be discussed Monday at a meeting of Bahamas Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell, Guillermo Cochez, former Panama ambassador to the Organization of American States, Miami lawyer Lorenzo Palomares and Miami banker Raymond Molina.
Bahamian authorities are holding 50 undocumented Cubans at the migration center, some for as long as 11 months. Most were intercepted as they tried to make their way to the United States. At least three already lived in the United States and were suspected of people smuggling.
Several have staged strident protests against conditions at the detention center and the possibility of repatriations. At least four sewed their lips together and several filmed a cell-phone video last month allegedly showing a center guard kicking at the detainees. Mitchell has said the video is fake.
Eight of the Cubans involved in the video were among the 24 put on the buses, and Democracy Movement activists said they suspected that the attempted repatriation to Cuba was “an action deceitful and intended to hide the torture of human beings.”
The 19 offered asylum by Panama were “the most abused” at the center, Sanchez said.
Panama announced Monday that it had agreed to offer “territorial asylum” to the 19 as a humanitarian gesture to spare them from a return to Cuba. Bahamas at the same time announced that it would investigate the presumed abuses and improve conditions at the detention center.
Detainees at the center — Haitians, Brazilians, Colombians, Chinese and others as well as Cubans — have long complained about conditions there. But the Democracy Movement had called for a tourist boycott of the Bahamas and staged several high-visibility protests.
Sánchez and Jesús Alexis Gómez ended their hunger strikes on Monday, after 17 and 24 days respectively, at the monument to the dead at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, in the heart of Little Havana.
Sanchez said that as soon as he heard about the planned repatriations Thursday — some of the detainees have smuggled cell phones — the Democracy Movement issued a public complaint and requested a permit to set up a protest tent in front of the Bahamian consulate in Miami.
A statement issued later Thursday by the Bahamas’ Foreign Ministry said the U.S. Diplomatic Protection Service had informed the consulate of “a specific threat by a specific individual … which has necessitated additional layers of security at the consulate.”
“Bahamians in Miami are further advised to exercise reasonable caution during this period in Miami,” the statement added.