Last Updated: Friday, 24 November 2017, 11:39 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Cuba

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Cuba , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Cuba hosted about 1,000 UNHCR-recognized refugees at the end of 1998, including 963 Sahrawis from Western Sahara. The next largest group, numbering 53, were Sudanese. There were about 50 refugees of other nationalities.

During the year, 12 refugees voluntarily repatriated from Cuba to five different countries. Another 142 Sahrawis voluntarily returned to Algeria, their country of first asylum. UNHCR was not aware of Cuba involuntarily returning any refugee during the year.

IOM assisted 483 Haitians to return voluntarily to Haiti during the year. They were not regarded as refugees. UNHCR assisted one Haitian refugee to repatriate in 1998. Virtually all of the Haitians who had sought asylum in Cuba after Haiti's 1991 coup repatriated in 1996. At year's end, there were 133 Haitians in the settlement of Punta de Maisi, where the government keeps most Haitian migrants pending their return to Haiti. Hundreds of Cubans continued to leave the country by boat, in hope of reaching the United States.

Asylum Procedure

Cuba is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has no procedure for determining refugee status. Without a Cuban procedure for adjudicating refugee claims, UNHCR exercises its mandate on behalf of persons it recognizes as refugees. UNHCR uses consultants in Cuba who interview asylum seekers. Cases come to their attention only if detained migrants specifically request an interview with UNHCR or if friends or relatives abroad contact UNHCR and request its intervention. The UNHCR regional office in Mexico reviews the files and makes the refugee status decisions. Rejected asylum seekers have the right to request a review by the same UNHCR regional office in Mexico.

Twelve asylum claims were filed with UNHCR in 1998. During the year, UNHCR recognized one Afghan and one Burundian as refugees, and confirmed that a Sudanese woman had previously been recognized as a refugee in Egypt. At year's end, two cases were pending with UNHCR.

Restrictive Measures

If aliens enter Cuba with false documents, whether or not they are asylum seekers, the authorities detain them. Detained aliens are kept separate from other prisoners. In practice, Cuba permits improperly documented non-Latin women and children to remain in hotels under supervision.

In addition to control of foreigners, Cuba exercises control over the exiting and entering of its own citizens. Human rights groups, most notably Amnesty International, have noted Cuba's use of exile as a tactic for ridding itself of political dissidents. Often dissidents are harassed with a series of short-term detentions as a means of coercing them to leave the country. On the occasion of the Pope's January 1998 visit to Cuba, the government released 99 political prisoners, but required 19 of them to go into exile.

Interdiction and Return

The U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 903 Cubans in 1998, more than double the 421 interdicted in 1997.

Direct returns to Cuba (often with a stop at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba) occurred pursuant to a 1995 migration agreement between Cuba and the United States. Under the terms of that agreement, Cuba said that it would try to prevent its citizens from attempting to leave by boat or raft. In return, the United States agreed to admit at least 20,000 Cubans a year directly from Cuba either through the refugee admissions program, with immigrant visas, as parolees, or through a special lottery.

As part of the migration agreement, Cuba formally agreed not to punish Cubans whom the U.S. Coast Guard interdicts and returns for having left Cuba illegally. The Cuban penal code (articles 216 and 217) makes "illegal exit" a crime punishable by up to three years' imprisonment, if the attempt to leave is nonviolent, or up to eight years if it involves violence or intimidation. Cuba imposes more severe penalties in cases involving hijacking. Although the Cuban authorities have imposed long prison sentences in some cases, at other times they have briefly detained returnees and then released them. Cuba did not amend its penal code in light of the U.S.-Cuba migration agreement, allowing to stand the penalties for unauthorized departure.

While the agreement is supposed to prevent direct retaliation for the illegal departure that immediately precedes the Coast Guard interdiction and return, it does not prevent Cuba from prosecuting the returnee on other grounds, including previous attempts at illegal exit. Cuba sometimes punishes returnees without actually prosecuting them for illegal departure, most commonly by denying them employment.

The agreement allows U.S. diplomatic officials to monitor the treatment of persons returned to Cuba by the United States. It offers no protection to rafters or rejected asylum seekers returned to Cuba from other countries. During 1997, there was no monitoring of the treatment of returnees from the Bahamas and other countries.

UNHCR was not able to respond to a USCR request for information about the treatment of repatriating Cubans returned by the U.S. Coast Guard or deported by other countries.

In response to a call by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba in January 1998, the Clinton Administration, in March, reinstated direct flights between Cuba and the United States, and permitted Cuban Americans to send their families in Cuba up to $1,200 per year. In 1996, the U.S. illegal immigration reform law created an exception to the new expedited removal procedure for improperly documented Cubans arriving by air. That, combined with the continuing Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to adjust their status after one year in the United States, were added incentives for Cubans seeking refuge in the United States to avoid the danger of raft or boat departures, particularly since the 1995 migration agreement ended the previous U.S. policy of bringing Cuban rafters to the United States.

Refugee Resettlement

Cuba permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain while awaiting a durable solution. UNHCR seeks voluntary repatriation or third country resettlement, depending on particular circumstances. In 1998, Canada resettled 76 Sudanese refugees from Cuba.

Although the United States resettled no third country nationals from Cuba, it did admit Cuban nationals directly to the United States as refugees through a program called "in-country processing." In 1998, the United States admitted 1,587 Cubans as refugees directly from Cuba.

Because of the high cost of exit fees ($500 per adult, $400 per child) and airfare, many persons approved for the U.S. refugee program have not been able to depart Cuba. At year's end, 306 U.S.-approved persons for direct refugee departure were not able to leave because of the prohibitive costs.

Cubans in the Caribbean

In January 1996, Cuba and the Bahamas signed a migration agreement under which the Bahamas agreed to return Cubans who arrive by boat or raft. The Bahamas returned 262 during the year, according to press reports. In 1998, Cuba and the Bahamas signed a protocol to the 1996 migration agreement intended to expedite repatriation of undocumented migrants between the two countries. Neither the protocol nor the original agreement included provisions for asylum seekers.

Cuba also has readmission agreements with the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jamaica hosted 17 Cuban refugees at the end of 1998. During 1998, Jamaica rejected nine Cuban asylum claims. At year's end, eight Cuban cases were pending.

Internal Migration

In April 1997, the Cuban Council of Ministers approved Decree 271, which bars migration from rural areas to Havana and prohibits Cubans from residing in the capital without being formally registered. Estimates of the number of "illegal residents" – commonly referred to as Palestinos (Palestinians) because of their homelessness – in Havana range as high as 400,000. Internal migration is also controlled for political reasons through confiscation of carnets, personal identify cards, making it difficult for dissidents to travel, including to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for those seeking refugee resettlement in the United States. The government also reportedly restricts the internal movement of people who are HIV positive.

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