Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

JAMAICA-REFUGEES: Cuban Asylum Seekers Get Respite

Corinne Barnes

KINGSTON, Apr 16 1996 (IPS) - The people spoke, the government relented but Jamaicans may yet still get to see if a group of Cuban asylum seekers make good on their threat to jump ship rather than return home.

For even though the 63 Cubans who arrived here illegally between January and March have been granted a two week “stay of departure” there is no guarantee that they will not still be deported.

The Cubans have been given leave to appeal their deportation order to a Ministerial Eligibility Committee, but critics charge that it is nonsensical for them to appeal to the same board which turned down their first application for asylum.

The Cubans were to have been sent home late last week, but a massive chorus of protest by ordinary Jamaicans incensed at what they called the inhumanity of the government, forced the Percival Patterson administration to back down … for now.

The government had explained that it had no choice but to order the deportations because the Cubans did not fit the description of real refugees.

They had been processed in accordance with the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and they did not satisfy the criteria to be granted refugee status, Foreign Affairs Minister Seymour Mullings said in the state’s defence.

Under the U.N. Convention, an asylum seeker would be classified as a political refugee if he had a “well-founded fear of persecution in his or her country. A general dissatisfaction with the political climate or policies of a country is not enough. Fleeing a country for economic hardship is not sufficient for one to qualify for political refugee status,” said Mullings.

The government says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supports its decision. But the UNHCR says the final decision as to whether or not the Cubans are sent back lies with the Jamaican government. His organisation only makes recommendations, a spokesman here said, it does not tell governments what to do.

The spokesman would not say what the UNHCR’s recommendation regarding the Cubans had been, noting that it was confidential.

Mullings also noted what some see as a more plausible explanation for the decision to send back the Cubans. He said that the administration cannot be seen to be opening the floodgate for “an unending stream of refugees”.

He pointed out that richer Caribbean neighbours like The Bahamas and the Cayman Islands to which Cubans have traditionally turned for refuge are closing their borders because of the strain on their infrastructure and social facilities.

Meanwhile as Jamaicans try to make sense of the deportations there are several theories on the reasoning informing the decision. Some observers believe that the ruling was made more on ideological rather than economical considerations.

“The People’s National Party administration ought not to be swayed by old friendship and past ideological affinity to Fidel Castro’s government,” ran an editorial in The Jamaica Observer.

“Could it be that this is a major embarrassment to the government which in the 1970s also advocated a socialist form of government so they cannot now be seen to be supporting runaways from this kind of regime?” asked one irate caller to a talk show.

“I believe the government cannot be seen to support a group of people who are regarded as being hostile to the regime which they have supported,” agreed popular talk-show host Wilmot Perkins.

Still others feel that Jamaica’s decision is in keeping with an emerging policy position of the country since the United States began to shift its stance on Cuban refugees two years ago.

In 1994 some 35,000 Cubans tried to get to Miami by boat and the Bill Clinton administration, fearing a crisis, began retreating from a longstanding policy of automatic entry and asylum for Cubans reaching the United States.

In 1995 Cuba and the United States agreed that islanders entering North America illegally were to be repatriated. Havana also pledged to try to contain the number of asylum seekers heading to the U.S. shores.

Though Jamaica and its Caricom partners have moved decisively to pull Cuba back into the Caribbean family of nations after years of ostracism in deference to the hemispheric power, the United States, the island still has to walk a fine line, bearing in mind that North America is still its major trading of partner.

And the United States is opposed to its friends also being friends with Cuba.

But this political stance runs counter to the long and intertwined history of the peoples of the two islands. Jamaicans have lived and worked in Cuba as early as the dawn of the century. Many older Jamaicans were in fact born there.

More recently, in the 1970s during this island’s socialist experiment, there were strong diplomatic relations between the two northern Caribbean islands.

The 144km separating the islands seemed shorter then as Cuba opened its doors to many Jamaicans training them in such professions as dentistry, medicine, engineering and architecture.

During those years too Jamaica’s health care system benefitted from a number of Cuban doctors who worked in public hospitals and clinics augmenting the island’s small pool of medical personnel.

Construction workers were also sent here to assist in the building of schools amid strong objections from the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

But now, the JLP has also joined the protest at the deportation order and has asked the government to behave in a more humane way toward the refugees.

“We have come full circle,” says one caller to a talk show. “In the 70s it was the PNP government who was taking in Cubans here and the opposition (JLP) wanted them out. Now they (the PNP) want to send them back and the opposition is advocating for their stay. What a circus!”

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