Cubans say applying for asylum in Greece is fraught with challenges, fleeing economic crisis and political repression at home.
Athens, Greece – Greece has become a European port for refugees from Africa and Asia.
But in recent months, authorities have been surprised to see large numbers of Cubans seeking shelter away from home.
The issue came to light on 28 October when some 130 Cubans tried to take off from the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea in Milan, northern Italy.
Among them, Pedro, 28, said, “It was accidental that so many Cubans met in one place.” “Usually we try to use several different airports.”
“When the police looked at Cuban passports one after the other, they put us all in a separate room.”
A video clip posted by a local news outlet showed Cubans creating a ruckus when police tried to settle them within the local border. He was given a written order to leave Greece before being released.
‘We sold everything’
Unlike most Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers, who set off from Turkish shores in rubber dinghys to reach the eastern Aegean islands, Cubans are not shepherded by smugglers.
Pedro and his girlfriend Laura flew from Havana to Moscow, where travel is visa-free for Cubans. From there he flew to Belgrade, also visa-free, and took buses and taxis from Serbia and North Macedonia to the Greek border.
“We had no plans,” said Laura, 27, who co-owns a restaurant with Pedro in Havana. “We just sold everything, bought tickets and left for Russia.”
Carlos, 23, another Cuban asylum seeker Al Jazeera spoke to, took a slightly different route. He flew from Moscow to Minsk, Belarus and from there to Belgrade via Istanbul.
The number of visitors is now in the hundreds.
Cuban asylum seeker Juan, who listed his compatriots on an asylum petition, has collected 400 signatures. He says at least 200 more people refused to sign for fear of revealing their identities.
The list shows that arrivals are mostly students and professionals under 50, with many children.
“There are lawyers, doctors, civil engineers – we are not robbers,” said Juan. “We wanted the country to embrace us to see that we can give something to society, we are not here to withdraw money and go home, but to be a part of society and contribute to it.”
Cuba unrest amid collapsing economy
All Cubans interviewed by Al Jazeera cited a crumbling economy and repression as reasons to leave Cuba.
“Basic needs are in very short supply,” Pedro said. “Medicine, soap, toilet paper, food – all these are rare, and when these things do appear, they are very expensive.”
The Cuban authorities recently instituted a cashcard with which anyone can buy such goods in shops with good supply, but the cards are only issued to those with access to foreign currency.
“If you have this card, relatives can send you dollars from abroad and you can survive,” Laura said. “If you don’t have anyone to send you dollars, you go hungry.”
Hunger broke out in an open protest on 11 July.
“Anyone who attended the protest felt that they were filmed,” said Juan, who was present there. “The government started arresting people in their homes.”
“My friends were beaten up and arrested. Others lost their jobs,” Pedro said.
Juan hid: “I told my parents that I was dating a girlfriend.” A friend bought him a ticket to Russia.
His plan was to reach Greece, a favorite stop for asylum seekers who want to travel deep into Europe, as it is a member of the Schengen Area of 26 European countries that have abolished border controls.
Juan’s ultimate target was either Spain or Italy, also a Schengen member.
America tightens asylum system
Crisis Cubans usually look to the United States for aid.
“Cubans had a special rule in the United States for a long time, that if they could get here physically, they could apply for a green card after a year. It was called the Cuba Adjustment Act, said Charles Cook, an immigration attorney based in Atlanta.
That program ended late in the Obama administration.
Under former President Donald Trump, asylum seekers were denied entry into the US, “contrary to our law,” Cook said. “They called it ‘Stay in Mexico policy’.”
Unable to reach American soil, Cubans could not apply for asylum. On May 3, President Joe Biden doubled refugee admissions to 125,000 in the fiscal year beginning in October. But America’s asylum service is designed to be so brutal, it may be an impossible goal.
“All these factors are coming into play here and taking people to other places, and Greece is another place right now,” Cook said.
The Cubans who arrived in Greece found that the situation was as bad as the ones they left behind.
Carlos has spent $2,000 on nine unsuccessful attempts to get to Germany or Spain; They were always returned to Greek airports. He is now poor and hungry.
“A woman helped me by giving me construction work for a week,” he said, but he spent the money feeding the children of other destitute Cubans. “I have 11 euros [$12.50] On me… I don’t know where I’ll be tonight.”
The legal bond of Cubans is expensive. Pedro and Laura sleep in the same bed in an apartment with 13 other people, paying $9 each day.
They could apply for asylum, which would entitle them to a rent subsidy and a monthly cash allowance. They will be allowed to work after six months.
But they have to register at a reception center like on the islands of the eastern Aegean – the common entry way for refugees.
There was no such center on the border of North Macedonia. Their only option now is to try and apply online, which can take several days.
Even that is difficult, said Vasilis Papadopoulos, who runs the Greek Council for Refugees, a legal aid charity for asylum seekers.
“There are also no Spanish interpreters because this is a new wave … the authorities do not register [Cubans] as asylum seekers and force them to return to Cuba or find their way elsewhere. ,
The Greek Ministry of Migration declined to comment for this report.
Cubans have one last, desperate option – to deport themselves to Cuba. Deportation procedures make allowance for an asylum application.
But the risk of failure appears to be very high.
Carlos said, “You have to tie me up to take me back to Cuba.” “Greece as a democracy respects human rights. Cuba has neither democracy nor human rights.
Juan said that he would “instead of going to prison in Europe … even here in prison, you can express your opinion. In Cuba you can’t say anything. It’s suffocating.”