Cuba hosted about 1,000 refugees and asylees in 2000. Of these, 954 were refugees recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 802 Sahrawis from Western Sahara. The next largest refugee groups, each numbering around 30, were Sudanese and Ethiopians. The remainder were from 17 other countries.
In 2000, 116 individuals filed asylum applications in Cuba with UNHCR. Of the cases adjudicated, UNHCR recognized 72 as refugees and rejected 38; 13 were pending at year's end. Most of the recognized refugees were from Afghanistan, Iran, and Ethiopia. The rest were from other countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Cuba permits UNHCR-recognized refugees to remain while awaiting a durable solution. During the year, 37 refugees were resettled in other countries.
In 2000, 648 Haitians arrived in Cuba. According to UNHCR, all were interviewed by the Cuban Red Cross and none sought refugee protection.
Cuba is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. According to the Cuban Constitution, individuals may be granted asylum, but Cuba lacks a procedure for adjudicating refugee claims. UNHCR conducts refugee status determinations, but does so from outside Cuba. 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.
Cuba detains improperly documented migrants. Migrants are kept separate from other prisoners, and women with children are housed under supervision in hotels. UNHCR has indicated that conditions for detained asylum seekers are generally good.
Once an individual submits an asylum application to UNHCR, the Cuban government will release the individual under UNHCR protection and grant the person temporary legal status until the refugee determination process is complete.
Sadako Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, visited Havana in May. In her address, she recognized Cuba's tradition of giving asylum and protection to refugees from many parts of the world and providing public services to refugees, and Cuba's growing relationship with UNHCR. Ms. Ogata also urged Cuba to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, and indicated that the Cuban government was "seriously considering" accession.
Cuban Asylum Seekers and Migrants
The U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 1,000 Cubans in 2000, down from 1,619 in 1999. In 1999, Cubans were the largest nationality group the Coast Guard interdicted; in 2000, Cubans were third after Ecuadorians and Haitians.
Direct returns to Cuba occurred based on a 1994 migration agreement between Cuba and the United States. Under that agreement, Cuba agreed to 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 for their illegal 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 returnees 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, which does not have an office in Cuba, said that it had received "no reports" of harassment or persecution of Cubans returned by the U.S. Coast Guard or deported by other countries during the year.
Cuba and the United States
In late 2000, Cuba and the United States held two talks on immigration issues, including the growing practice of smuggling unauthorized Cuban immigrants into the United States.
During the talks, which were suspended from late 1999 until September 2000 because of the conflict over Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban government blamed the rise in illegal transport crimes and the deaths of Cubans at sea on the U.S. "wet-foot/dry-foot" policy. Under this policy, in effect since 1998, Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba; those who reach the United States can apply for permanent residency after one year. In 2000, intense Cuban criticism of this policy continued.
At the same time, the United States criticized Cuba's practice of hindering "legal and orderly" migration to the United States by charging high exit fees, which total $600 (the average monthly salary in Cuba is $10). The United States also accused Cuba of refusing to grant exit permits to some Cuban citizens with valid U.S. entry documents. U.S. officials acknowledged, however, that the goal of 20,000 migrants per year established under the 1994 agreement has generally been met.
At the end of 2000, 12 Cuban-Americans had been convicted under Cuba's strict new laws aimed at penalizing individuals who help Cubans to leave the country illegally and travel to the United States. Two were serving life terms. At the end of the year, another 70 Cuban-Americans were in jail facing charges of illegal transport.
In response to the increase in smuggling crimes, Cuba intensified its efforts to stop Cubans from leaving the island last year. Because capturing speedboats is difficult and expensive and because the Border Guard is prohibited from using force to stop smugglers at sea, Cuba has focused on stopping people on land before they embark.