United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Bahamas, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b6c.html [accessed 25 March 2017]
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In 1996, 255 asylum seekers arrived in the Bahamas. All but two, one from Nigeria and the other from Liberia, were Cubans. Among these individuals, 39 were granted refugee status, one was permitted to remain on humanitarian grounds, and 213 were rejected and returned to Cuba. One case remained pending at the end of the year, and one asylum seeker abandoned his claim. Cuban Asylum Seekers A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the Bahamian and Cuban governments in January provided for the return of Cuban asylum seekers already in the Bahamas, and for the immediate deportation of Cubans arriving after the signing of the MOU. The agreement did not include any provision for determining whether Cuban asylum seekers qualified for refugee status, nor did it include any assurances from the Cuban government that it would not punish the returnees. On April 4, the Bahamian government returned 26 Cuban asylum seekers to Cuba. Although the Bahamian authorities said that all members of the group had requested voluntary repatriation and had signed voluntary repatriation agreements, a number of Cuban detainees alleged that the group had included five Cubans who had made it clear that they did not want to return and who had not been given an opportunity to apply for asylum. A relative of one of the detainees wrote to USCR in April. She described the conditions of detention as "sub-human," characterized by abusive guards, lack of adequate food, nearly nonexistent health care, and unsanitary conditions. USCR visited the detention center near Nassau where most Cuban asylum seekers were held in mid-April. USCR found conditions at the detention center "bleak, and unnecessarily harsh," and lacking in adequate health care. A woman and her daughter who spoke with USCR at the center affirmed that five persons had been returned against their will and without an opportunity to apply for asylum. They added that they also were to have been refouled that day, but were not because the airplane was full. Following the site visit, USCR wrote to the Bahamian authorities to express concern about the deportations. Bahamian officials reiterated that all of the repatriations had been voluntary, and that "any persons considered refugees will not be returned to Cuba." In contradiction to the detainees' charges, UNHCR said that the Bahamas had in fact permitted the Cubans to apply for asylum by giving them UNHCR asylum application forms in Spanish. However, detainees did not have access to legal counsel or other assistance in completing the forms. UNHCR reviewed 150 applications representing 170 individuals in late March, and made negative decisions on most of them on the basis of the written information alone, a process USCR strongly criticized in a letter to UNHCR. In May, a UNHCR legal officer visited the Bahamas and carried out face-to-face interviews with 25 applicants appearing to have stronger claims, as well as with 30 applicants whose cases were newly presented during the officer's visit. UNHCR submitted recognized cases to the Bahamian government for consideration. The government granted asylum to those cases that UNHCR recommended. UNHCR and USCR urged the Bahamian government to provide rejected asylum seekers an opportunity for appeal before carrying out any deportations. In a June 11 letter to UNHCR, USCR expressed concern that the UNHCR forms filled out by the asylum seekers may not have fully reflected their reasons for leaving Cuba. Because UNHCR was not present when the forms were filled out and no legal counsel was available, and because many of the detainees may have thought that the Cuban authorities might see the forms, they may not have responded fully to the questions. Given this, wrote USCR, face-to-face interviews were necessary for each case to be considered properly, especially because "rejected applicants will be returned to a country that has not given any assurance that it will not persecute them, and where there is widespread human rights abuse." In June, following an attempted escape from the detention center, the Bahamian authorities transferred 114 Cuban men from the center to the Fox Hill prison, a facility described by the U.S. Department of State as "harsh and overcrowded." Detention center guards had allegedly fired shots at the men as they tried to escape. Detainees inside the center witnessing the firing reportedly then threw rocks at the guards, who then in turn reportedly fired shots at the detainees. Guards also reportedly attempted to separate male detainees from the women and children, using tear gas to separate them forcibly when they resisted. A USCR letter to the Bahamian embassy in the United States inquiring about the reports received no response. However, UNHCR told USCR that it had discussed the reports with the Bahamian government, which denied that it had used excessive force in the escape incident and specifically denied that women and children had been mistreated and that tear gas had been used. On August 2, USCR again wrote to the Bahamian embassy to urge that the government "permit the remaining rejected asylum seekers to appeal their rejection and refrain from returning any further asylum seekers until the Cuban authorities affirm that they will not penalize the returnees." Haitians The Bahamian government continued to repatriate Haitian "illegal immigrants" during 1996 based on an agreement between the Bahamas and Haiti that expired at the end of 1995. No information was available on whether any of these individuals were seeking asylum, and whether they had been given the opportunity to do so. n