United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Cuba, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b630.html [accessed 23 May 2015]
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The last 127 of 29,000 Cuban refugees held in U.S. military-run camps at the Guantnamo naval base in Cuba arrived in the United States on January 31, 1996. The admission into the United States of the Guantnamo refugees culminated a period of transition in U.S. policy on Cuban asylum seekers from one of special preferences to one emphasizing deterrence. The effort seemed to succeed in deterring boat and raft departures: there were 393 Cubans interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1996, compared to 611 in 1995. Nonetheless, desire to leave the island remained strong. More than 435,000 Cubans, representing about 4 percent of the country's population, applied to emigrate in a U.S. visa lottery for 6,000 slots. The lottery was part of a 1994 agreement between the United States and Cuba in which the United States agreed to admit at least 20,000 Cubans a year directly from Cuba in exchange for Cuba's efforts to deter irregular migration. In May 1995, the United States further agreed to return unauthorized Cuban migrants, and Cuba, in turn, agreed not to punish those who were returned by the Coast Guard for having attempted to flee. Despite this agreement, Cuban law providing for imprisonment from one to three years or a fine for unauthorized departures by sea did not change. There had been some speculation that the migration agreement would signal a broader thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. Instead, relations between the two countries deteriorated after the Cuban air force shot down two airplanes carrying four Cuban Americans in late February. A bill intended to discourage foreign investment in Cuba, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton, was quickly passed into law after the Clinton administration reversed its opposition to the measure. The chill in relations temporarily brought the continued cooperation between the two countries on migration issues into question. Talks on implementation of the migration agreement were suspended. However, in early March, when five Cubans interdicted at sea were repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana told the Reuters news service that "nothing has been altered in the migration accord, it continues to function." Later in the year, however, the United States appeared more reluctant to return asylum seekers. In June, a Cuban hijacker forced a Cuban aircraft to divert to Guantnamo. The hijacker was held while U.S. authorities tried to decide whether to grant him asylum, try him in the United States, or return him to Cuba. In August, 27 Cubans were rescued after their boat capsized 25 miles south of the Florida Keys. Although 16 passengers were returned to Cuba, another 11 were allowed to remain in the United States. Also in August, three Cubans hijacked a small plane that subsequently crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Upon their rescue, the hijackers were brought to the United States. In response to these incidents, Cuba's state-run media demanded that all the Cubans be returned. Cuban officials hinted that the U.S. government might be deliberately trying to encourage unauthorized migration in order to discredit the Cuban government, a charge that seemed unlikely given the increasingly negative public sentiment toward immigration in the United States. In June 1996, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented guidelines for shipboard screening of Cubans interdicted at sea. USCR wrote to the INS Commissioner to express concern that the instructions directed INS asylum officers to make a "sales pitch" to interdicted Cubans to convince them to opt for return to Cuba to apply for in-country refugee processing. This, said USCR, would "forfeit any ability on the part of the officer to conduct a neutral interview on the merits of a person's refugee claim." USCR was also critical of INS instructions to screening officers to take into account when determining refugee claims the pledge by the Cuban government not to punish people for irregular departures. The instructions give "far more weight than we at USCR would accord to formal assurances by the Cuban government and the ability of the U.S. Interests Section to monitor returnees," said USCR. "This written instruction also, inappropriately, suggests to the interviewing officers that the existence of an in-country processing program is sufficient ground for them to doubt the objective basis of a refugee claimant's fear." In a July 1996 reply to USCR's letter, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner responded that the initial statement was not intended to deter people from coming forward, and that every Cuban interdicted since the guidelines had gone into effect had requested and received a private interview. Regarding the Cuban government's pledge, responded Meissner, the U.S. government found it appropriate to consider the pledge, but INS adjudicators had been clearly instructed that the existence of in-country processing, monitoring efforts, and the Cuban pledge did not mean that no Cuban should ever receive protection under the program. Cubans Elsewhere During the year, 253 Cuban asylum seekers arrived in the Bahamas. Refugee status was granted to 39 persons and 213 persons were rejected and returned. In November 1996, IOM assisted in the resettlement of ten persons from Guantnamo to Bolivia. Bolivia agreed to resettle a total of ten more Cubans in 1997. In Jamaica, UNHCR examined 60 claims for refugee status from Cubans in 1996. Of these, three persons ultimately received refugee status from the Jamaican government's Ad Hoc Eligibility Committee; the others were rejected. Refugees in Cuba At year's end, there were 1,649 refugees living in Cuba. The largest numbers of them were from Western Sahara (1,247) and Sudan (263). There were only ten refugees from Haiti living in Cuba by the end of 1996 (IOM repatriated 908 Haitians from Cuba after they were shipwrecked on Cuba's coast). During the year, UNHCR reported 26 new arrivals, all from Africa and Latin America.