Athens, Greece – Greece has become a European port of call for refugees from Africa and Asia.
But in recent months, authorities have been surprised to find large numbers of Cubans seeking shelter far from home.
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The issue came to light on October 28 when some 130 Cubans tried to fly from the island of Zakynthos, in the Ionian Sea, to Milan, in northern Italy.
“It was accidental that so many Cubans met in the same place,” said Pedro, 28, who was among them. “Usually we try to use lots of different airports.”
“When police saw one Cuban passport after another, they put us all in a separate room.”
A video clip posted by a local news outlet showed Cubans in an uproar when police tried to bus them to the local precinct. They were given written orders to leave Greece before being released.
‘We sold everything’
Unlike the mostly Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers who set out from Turkish shores in rubber dinghies to reach the east Aegean islands, Cubans do not appear to be shepherded by smugglers.
Pedro and his girlfriend, Laura, flew from Havana to Moscow, where travel is visa-free for Cubans. From there they flew to Belgrade, also visa-free, and took buses and taxis through Serbia and North Macedonia to the Greek border.
“We didn’t have a plan,” said Laura, 27, who co-owned 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 arrivals are now in their hundreds.
Juan, a Cuban asylum seeker enlisting his compatriots on an asylum petition, has gathered 400 signatures. He says at least 200 more refused to sign, afraid of giving away their identities.
The list reveals that the arrivals are mostly students and professionals below 50, many with children.
“There are lawyers, doctors, civil engineers – we’re not brigands,” said Juan. “We wanted the country that will embrace us to see that we can offer thing to society, we’re not here to extract wealth and go home, but to be part of society and contribute to it.”
Unrest in Cuba amid crumbling economy
All the Cubans Al Jazeera interviewed cited a crumbling economy and repression as reasons for leaving Cuba.
“Basic needs are in very low supply,” said Pedro. “Medicine, soap, toilet paper, food – it’s all scarce, and when these things do appear, they are very expensive.”
Cuban authorities recently instituted a cashcard with which one can buy such goods in well-supplied shops, but the cards are issued only to people with access to foreign currency.
“If you have this card, relatives can send you dollars from abroad and you can live,” said Laura. “If you don’t have someone to send you dollars, you go hungry.”
The hunger spilled over into an open protest on July 11.
“Anyone who joined the protest realised that they had been filmed,” said Juan, who was there. “The government started arresting people in their homes.”
“Friends of mine were beaten and arrested. Others lost their jobs,” said Pedro.
Juan went into hiding: “I told my parents I was shacking up with a girlfriend.” A friend bought him a ticket to Russia.
His plan was to reach Greece, a preferred stop for asylum seekers who want to travel deeper into Europe, because it is a member of the Schengen Area of 26 European countries that have abolished border controls.
Juan’s ultimate goal was Spain or Italy, also Schengen members.
US tightens asylum system
Cubans in distress would normally look to the United States for assistance.
“Cubans have long had a special rule in the United States, that if they could physically get here, a year later they could apply for a Green Card. It was called the Cuban Adjustment Act,” said immigration lawyer Charles Kuck, based in Atlanta.
That programme ended late in the Obama administration.
Under ex-President Donald Trump, asylum seekers were refused entry into the US, “contrary to our law,” said Kuck. “They called this the ‘Remain in Mexico Policy’.”
Unable to reach US 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 the US’s asylum service has been so brutalised, it may be an impossible goal.
“All these factors are coming into play here and are driving people to other places, and Greece is that other place right now,” said Kuck.
The Cubans who have made it to Greece find that conditions are as bad as those they left behind.
Carlos has spent $2,000 on nine failed attempts to get to Germany or Spain; he was always turned back at Greek airports. He is now penniless and hungry.
“One lady 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 … Tonight I don’t know where I will stay.”
Cubans’ legal limbo is expensive. Pedro and Laura sleep in a single bed in an apartment with 13 others, paying $9 a day each.
They could apply for asylum, which would entitle them to a rent subsidy and monthly cash allowance. After six months they would be allowed to work.
But they would have to have registered at a reception centre like those on the islands of the east Aegean – the usual entry route for refugees.
There was no such centre on the border with North Macedonia. Their only option now is to try and apply online, which can take days.
Even this is difficult, said Vasilis Papadopoulos, who runs the Greek Council for Refugees, a legal aid charity for asylum seekers.
“There are not even Spanish interpreters because this is a new wave … the authorities do not register [Cubans] as asylum seekers and force them to go back to Cuba or find their way elsewhere.”
The Greek migration ministry refused to comment for this report.
Cubans do have one last, desperate option – to turn themselves in to be deported to Cuba. Deportation procedures make allowance for an asylum application.
But the risk of failure appears too great.
“You’d have to tie me up to take me back to Cuba,” said Carlos. “Greece as a democracy respects human rights. Cuba has no democracy and no human rights.”
Juan said he would “rather go to jail in Europe … Here, even in jail, you can express your opinion. In Cuba, you cannot say anything. It’s asphyxiating.”