MIAMI (AP) — An ongoing protest by Cuban Americans in South Florida over the treatment of migrants in the Bahamas has brought renewed attention to longstanding complaints about the conditions of confinement in the island nation for people seeking to reach the United States, often with the help of human smugglers.
Activists in Florida allege that Cubans detained on suspicion of illegal immigration have been beaten by guards, denied access to adequate food, water and medical care, and deprived of the ability to file asylum claims while held in a detention center that the U.S. and U.N. have said does not meet international standards.
"The abuses in the Bahamas have reached the point of torture," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, an activist who was on his 12th day of a hunger strike Tuesday in support of the migrants.
There have long been complaints about Bahamas' treatment of the migrants, who mostly come from Cuba and Haiti. Both the U.S. and U.N. have criticized conditions in the detention center over the years.
Sanchez said that, after some gains, the situation had deteriorated and "they went back to the old way of mistreating of the detainees."
The protest, which has taken place at the Bahamian consulate in Miami and near the piers where cruise ships embark to the Bahamas, has drawn support from members of the U.S. Congress and a sharp response from Bahamian officials, who deny any abuse and are angered over calls for a tourism boycott.
"Bahamians are quite fed up with this attack on our country, which in our view is unfair," Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell said. "We spend $1 billion in the Florida economy every year. What's the point in trying to damage our economy?"
The Bahamas is a sparsely populated island chain of 350,000 people spread over more than two dozen islands, and is frequently used as a transit zone by people trying to reach the nearby United States. The Royal Bahamas Defense Force regularly detains boatloads of migrants and deports most back to their homelands.
Carmichael Road was converted from a school into a detention center in the mid-1990s to accommodate the increasing number of migrants. Two of the four dormitories burned in a fire started by detainees in 2004 and some people held there must sleep on the floor or outside when capacity is reached, according to a 2012 U.S. State Department report. It said as many as 375 people had been held there.
A Cuban woman recently held there with her two children, ages 3 and 12, told The Associated Press that the center is filthy, detainees are not given adequate food or potable water and are forced to sleep on the floor.
"They beat the men, but the women they only speak to us harshly, they don't hit any of us," she said in a phone interview. ""The reality is they don't treat anyone well."
The woman, who has been released as she pursues an asylum claim, spoke on condition of anonymity because her husband has been moved from the detention center to the main prison in the Bahamas and she feared losing visitation rights. Her claims could not be independently verified.
Mitchell said the government had not received any specific, credible claims of abuse and no investigation was being conducted. He said officials had looked into a video released by supporters of the detained Cubans allegedly showing men being struck by guards in the detention center and determined it was "clearly a staged event."
Six Cubans were moved from the detention center to prison for what the country's national security minister said was "hostile behavior," which included sewing their mouths shut in protest of conditions. Mitchell said two of the men have legal U.S. residence status and are believed to have been attempting to smuggle other Cubans when they were detained.
Conditions at Her Majesty's Prison at Fox Hill are "harsh and unsanitary for many prisoners," the U.S. State Department said in a 2012 report.
The foreign minister said the government was taking steps to improve conditions in the detention center, and is soliciting bids for a contract to build new dormitories.
"Everyone admits the conditions are not optimum but they are not inhumane," Mitchell said in an interview. "Our predecessors did nothing for five years; they let the place deteriorate. So there's a lot of work that has to be done."
The U.N. gave the government some credit Monday for improving conditions, saying in a statement that the Bahamas had approved a budget to upgrade the detention center and had taken "preliminary measures establish a fair asylum process." But it also noted that "further fundamental changes are needed" to meet international standards.
Associated Press writer Gisela Salamon contributed to this report.
Ben Fox on Twitter: https://twitter.com/benfoxatap