- 10 Apr 01
Not all refugees who seek asylum in this country are granted it. Niamh Connolly talks to some Cubans who have been lucky enough to squeeze through the rigid vetting process in operation and teases out some of the political issues that lie behind some of the decisions as well as the social implications for the successful ones.
RODDOLFO and his wife, Julia, both 25, had been quietly planning their departure from Cuba for almost two years. Roddolfo, a graduate in micro-electronics was active in student politics in Havana and was “advised” by the Rapid Response Unit of the Cuban Police that he and his wife should get out as soon as possible.
“They said we had no reason to be in Cuba and we should leave. We wanted to go somewhere we would feel safe. First we went to Russia,” Roddolfo explains, “but the situation there is the same as it was a few years back and we weren’t allowed stay. We feel safe in Ireland. So far, everyone has been very kind to us.”
Alexis, 33, an economist, sold his home for a plane ticket out of Cuba. “I lost a lot of jobs for saying what I believed to my workmates, my friends and family. The Security knew my opinions, the government have a big engine for keeping people quiet. You never know who your friends are, who you can or can’t talk to.”
The Irish Refugee Council’s only volunteer in Ennis, Orla Ni Eili, is frantically trying to keep pace with the new Cuban arrivals to the town. Today, her morning’s work includes arranging for two young Cuban children to attend the local school, organising English classes with volunteer teachers, as well as meeting eight new Cuban arrivals. Her house is just a stone’s throw away from the “M.T. Pockets” pub and hostel, an appropriate name for what is now home to 12 of the 90-odd Cubans in Ennis.
“I’ll tell you quite honestly, I’m floundering,” she reports. “We’re all floundering. The lack of coherent procedures and government policy has led to a hit and miss response.” About eight Cubans arrive weekly at Shannon Airport seeking political asylum. So far, this year’s figures for asylum seekers comes to 170, with Cubans numbering about 120 of the total. This compares to two years ago, when the total seeking asylum in Ireland was just 39.
What lies behind the influx is the recent turn-around in US policy on the Cuban right to asylum in America. Previously, the US authorities welcomed fleeing Cubans as living proof of the country’s righteous opposition to the Castro regime, thereby justifying its on-going trade embargo. Now, as the floodgates have been opened by Castro himself, America has called a halt to the flood of thousands of refugees arriving by plane, boat and raft, many of whom have died in a desperate bid to reach US shores. Some continue to see Ireland as a ‘third safe country’, a stepping stone to gaining entry to the US.
Before the change in policy, the US Emigration Authorities viewed Cubans arrived to a ‘third safe country’ like Ireland as home and dry. They could apply for political asylum in Ireland, but before their application was processed they would make their way to America via London, where they were admitted without problems. Now, refugees who arrive from a 'third safe country’ rated low in US priorities and are often sent to camps or disused prisons.
The majority of new arrivals to Ireland come on Aeroflot flights, on their way to the Soviet Union. International law stipulates that passengers must disembark before airplanes refuel and in Ireland they can do this without transit visas. Once inside the airport, many Cubans refuse to reboard the plane – some will have a note written in English saying “I am seeking political asylum,” others look for an airport official. All are referred to the Emigration Authorities for interview. The first indication of the problems they will face arises here.
Asylum seekers have no legal aid either before or while making their statements to the Emigration Authorities. The notes from the interview are recorded and used by the Department of Justice in deciding whether or not to grant asylum. As it stands, applications for citizenship are at the sole discretion of the Minister for Justice, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is not bound to give reasons for refusing or accepting citizenship.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) pays £50 per case to solicitors defending asylum seekers, barely covering the costs of two days work. Fortunately, the Irish Refugee Council have a list of 12 solicitors who are willing to take on such cases, but because of the dire shortage this can only be at the appeal stage, when they have already been threatened with deportation.
After the interview at Shannon Airport, temporary accommodation is arranged by the Red Cross in guest houses in Ennis at a cost of £140 a week per person. This sum, in addition to an allowance of £30 a week, is paid by the Mid-Western Health Board. From here begins the long wait, sometimes up to three years, for their case to be processed.
The burden of proof for the Cubans lies in showing that they are ‘genuine asylum seekers’ rather than ‘economic migrants’. To date no Cuban has been granted political asylum in Ireland. At the time of going to press, two Cubans have already been given ten days to leave by the Department of Justice or they will face deportation.
Dangers of Racism
Amnesty International’s mandate is strictly limited to dealing with ‘genuine asylum seekers’, defined by the Geneva Convention as those fleeing a country in fear of their lives or persecution because they come from a specific political, ethnic or religious background. They have documented significant increases in human rights abuses in Cuba over the last few years, and have compiled a list of 500 Cuban prisoners of conscience.
Derek Stewart, solicitor for the deportees, sees the category of ‘economic migrants’ as a tenuous one. “I think some may have fled to a country where they can eat and live, where they can have a better way of life, but then that’s no different to the Irish people who went to America during the famine. They were economic migrants, not political asylum seekers. It’s also worth bearing in mind that people who have a million pounds to invest in a dog food company seem to get citizenship in this country easily, but if you’re just a poor Cuban, things are very different.”
The need for a more organised and humane way of dealing with asylum seekers seems to be finally hitting home, however. The Minister for Justice, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn has just published a new Refugee Bill, based on an inter-departmental report produced under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Amnesty in Ireland have made submissions on the shortcomings of the bill to the Minister, particularly on what it sees as the continuing concern with preventing people from seeking asylum, rather than honouring Ireland’s own obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Under the new bill, Department of Justice officials outnumber independent lawyers on the proposed new Refugee Applications Board. The Bill also allows for the Refugee Board to make a decision on an application without hearing the applicant, and solely based on notes of the interview between the immigration officer and the applicant.
Martin Walsh, Amnesty’s Refugee Coordinator in Ireland, is campaigning for an independent body to consider asylum applications which, he believes, should then be binding on the Minister for Justice and for the right of the asylum seekers to a personal appearance and interview with the new body before decisions are made. In the meantime, according to Stewart, the Department of Foreign Affairs “should immediately start negotiations with the United States Emigration and Naturalisation Service to see to those Cubans who have left but not arrived at their chosen destination, usually America.”
So far, the feeling in Ennis has been receptive to the Cubans’ situation, although, in a country which treats its traveller community with hostility, the possibility of a similar kind of animosity towards the Cubans poses a real danger. “There’s now emerging here in the last month a changed feeling. It was never that hot, but now it’s becoming a little hostile, along the lines of ‘they should be sent back to where they came from’,” says Stewart.
Orla Ni Eili is conscious of the dangers of racism lurking in the community. “So far, it hasn’t raised its head in a substantial way. The people of Clare are generally very sympathetic to the plight of these asylum seekers. But there’s a need for social gatherings between the Cubans and the local community to make sure we have a positive perspective before any problems arise.”
• The Irish Refugee Council is based at Arran House, 35/36 Arran Quay, Dublin 7. Tel. 01 8724424.
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