A simulated wave of Caribbean migrants sailed to the Guantanamo naval base this week for a training drill designed to prepare U.S. troops and security agencies who might someday have to handle the real thing.
The exercise is held every two years to prepare for a potential mass migration brought on by political upheaval or natural disaster in the region.
More than 500 U.S. troops and government workers flew to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in eastern Cuba for the drill, which started on Saturday and runs through Friday.
"It's not related to any real-world event," said Colonel Jane Crichton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army South unit based in San Antonio, Texas, which is participating in the drill.
The drill is taking place on the sparsely populated Leeward side of the base, which is bisected by Guantanamo Bay. Most of the base facilities are on the Windward side, including the detention center that holds 166 prisoners captured in anti-terrorism operations.
The Guantanamo base housed more than 45,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees who were picked up at sea during the last mass migration in the Caribbean in the mid-1990s. It also served as a logistics hub for U.S. ships and flights ferrying aid to Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010.
But most of the personnel involved in those operations have moved on to other assignments.
"We rotate in and out of our jobs a lot," Crichton said. "We have a turnover of about every two to three years."
Dubbed "Integrated Advance," this week's exercise is a chance for military and agency heads to set up a command post and practice working together as they would be required to do during a real humanitarian crisis. The Department of Homeland Security would take the lead.
Military and other government officials are participating from bases and offices in the United States but most of the action will take place on a sun-baked patch of land at the Guantanamo base.
In 2007, military contractors set up rows of cinderblock bathrooms and showers in the area, where tents would be erected to house migrants awaiting repatriation or resettlement.
Concertina wire, small satellite dishes and bright green tents dotted the area for this week's drill. Some of the soldiers and sailors camped out there will play the role of migrants while others will practice registering them into a Department of Homeland Security database and sorting them into group camps, Crichton said.
"They believe we can handle approximately 1,000 a day," she said.
Other participants will conduct mock press conferences and produce a television news report on the operation, with sailors playing the role of journalists and actual public affairs officers conducting the briefings.
The participants would not disclose the script they will be working from, and the fictional migrants will be identified only as hailing from Country One and Country Two.
A similar drill held in Miami in 2007 envisioned a mass exodus of Cubans fleeing violence after their government fell, with Florida boaters headed south to pick up relatives and a mystery virus spreading among the refugee camps.
During the drill, events that would take place over several months will be compressed into a few days.
"They're as realistic as they can be," Crichton said. "To work together in an exercise before we actually have to do it in a real-world situation is very important."
The participants stressed that there is no anticipation of a refugee crisis any time soon. In fact, the number of Caribbean migrants taking to the seas in flimsy boats has been relative small in recent years.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it intercepted 2,955 migrants at sea in fiscal 2012, and 605 since October 1, the majority of them Haitians and Cubans. It has been nearly a decade since the annual total topped 10,000.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton)