Cuba hosted 967 refugees recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 1999, including 862 Sahrawis from Western Sahara. The next largest group, numbering 40, were Sudanese. The remainder were from 15 other countries.

During the year, three Chilean refugees and one Namibian refugee voluntarily repatriated from Cuba. UNHCR was not aware of Cuba involuntarily returning any refugee during the year.

Asylum Procedure

Cuba is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has no procedure for determining refugee status. According to the Cuban constitution, individuals may be granted asylum if they have been persecuted "for their ideals or struggles for democratic rights against imperialism, fascism, colonialism, and neocolonialism; against discrimination and racism; for national liberation; for the rights of workers, peasants, and students; for their progressive political, scientific, artistic, and literary activities; [or] for socialism and peace." Cuba honors the principle of first asylum and has provided it to a small number of persons.

Without a Cuban procedure for adjudicating refugee claims, UNHCR exercises its mandate on behalf of persons it recognizes as refugees. Cases come to the attention of UNHCR if detained migrants request an interview 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.

Improperly documented migrants who enter Cuba, whether or not they are asylum seekers, are detained. Migrants are kept separate from other prisoners. In practice, Cuba permits improperly documented non-Latin women and children to remain in hotels under supervision.

UNHCR reports that its activities in Cuba in 1999 included assisting African refugee students in Cuba, who have become refugees sur place due to events in their countries of origin.

Nearly 60 asylum claims were filed with UNHCR in 1999. Of the cases adjudicated, UNHCR recognized 27 and rejected 20; 12 were pending at year's end. UNHCR recognized eight Afghans and seven Iraqis as refugees. The rest of the recognized refugees were from Africa and the Middle East.

Interdiction and Return

The U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 1,619 Cubans in 1999, the largest nationality group it interdicted, significantly increasing from 903 in 1998 and 421 in 1997.

Direct returns to Cuba (often with a stop at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba) occurred pursuant to a 1994 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 for their illegal departure whom the U.S. Coast Guard interdicts and returns. 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.

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 by other countries.

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

Cubans and the United States

In 1998, following the Pope's visit to Cuba, President Clinton promised to lift the ban on direct air travel between the United States and Cuba, and to permit Cuban-Americans to send their families in Cuba up to $1,200 per year. In January 1999, the Clinton Administration reinstated direct flights to Cuba from Miami.

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 (see United States). That law, combined with the continuing Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows Cubans to adjust their status after one year in the United States, were added incentives for Cubans seeking refuge 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.

In July 1999, Fidel Castro urged the United States to abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act, stating that it encourages smuggling. The United States and Cuba engaged in talks in December 1999 to discuss issues surrounding the 1966 law, but reached no agreements.

In 1999, the most famous Cuban rafter was Elián Gonzalez, a 6-year-old who lost his mother and stepfather who drowned along with nine others when their boat capsized off the coast of Florida in November. That case, combined with an incident in June 1999 known as the "Surfside Six"&#151 ;when the U.S. Coast Guard was videotaped using fire-hoses and pepper-spray to stop six Cuban rafters from reaching shore&#151 ;has focused Cuban and U.S. attention on the "wet-foot/dry-foot" policy. Under this policy, which was formulated by the United States in conjunction with the 1994 migration agreement with Cuba, Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba; those who reach U.S. land are paroled into the United States and can apply for permanent residency after one year.

Restrictive Measures

Cuba exercises control over the exit and return 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 John Paul II's January 1998 visit to Cuba, the government released 99 political prisoners, but exiled 19 of those released.

In early 1999, Cuba modified its penal code, classifying "trafficking of migrants" and other offenses as new crimes in Cuba. The new laws were aimed at penalizing individuals who help Cubans to leave the country illegally and travel to the United States (mostly by speedboat), and are punishable by long prison sentences and heavy fines. Two Cuban-born U.S. citizens went on trial in Cuba in September 1999 for attempting to smuggle 11 Cubans to Florida; their boat capsized near Havana and one person drowned. One received a life sentence, the other received 15 years.

Refugee Resettlement

Cuba permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain while awaiting a durable solution. UNHCR seeks voluntary repatriation or third country resettlement for recognized refugees, depending on particular circumstances. In 1999, Canada resettled 11 Sudanese refugees from Cuba. The United States resettled one Afghan from Cuba, and admitted 2,018 Cubans as refugees directly from Cuba. UNHCR was not involved in the U.S. government's program for directly admitting Cubans to the United States as refugees.

Because of the high cost of exit fees ($500 per adult, $400 per child – the equivalent of five years of a professional person's salary) and airfare, 315 persons approved for the U.S. refugee program were not able to depart Cuba by year's end.

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. Internal migration is also controlled for political reasons through confiscation of personal identity 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.


This 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.