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I Just Want my Refugee Life in Cuba to Come to an End

February 10, 2020
Aida Ghajar
7 min read
Saadi Lotfi has been a refugee in Cuba for three years and is still waiting for his fate to be decided
Saadi Lotfi has been a refugee in Cuba for three years and is still waiting for his fate to be decided

It’s an environment I have seen before, not unlike life for Iranian refugees in Turkey. A feeling of insecurity, distrust, and waiting, without an end in sight. As in Turkey, this is the life for Iranian refugees in Cuba too. In both countries, I talked to refugees who have been already registered with the United Nations and are waiting to be assigned a final destination.

At the moment, there are at least 30 Iranian refugees in Cuba registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and whose final destinations will be decided after their interviews. But waiting without a work permit and without anything to indicate when things might change often results in them suffering both physical and mental ailments.

Iranian Kurdish refugee Saadi Lotfi has been waiting close to three years in Cuba for his future to be decided. In 2017, after military clashes surged between the Turkish government and the Kurds he decided to seek refuge in Cuba instead of Turkey. Getting to Cuba was easy but enduring it, he saysi, is exhausting.

Among the Caribbean nations, Cuba has the least number of refugees, accounting for only 0.1 percent of its total population. It is not these immigrants’ final destination and, like Turkey, the country is supposed to be hosting them on a  temporary basis. According to UN statistics, in March 2017 the number of immigrants in Cuba who asked for asylum after their visas expired was 121, 19 of them children.

According to Saadi Lotfi, the number of Iranian asylum seekers in Cuba is now at least 30. Most of the newcomers are young married couples who bought their visas to reach Cuba and register with the UNHCR there. And these travelers, immediately after arriving in Cuba or a short while afterward, apply for asylum. Usually, travel agencies charge a hefty sum to get tourist visas for the applicants. Some continue on to another country like Ecuador. But, like many of the refugees in Turkey and other gateway countries, they will not have any idea how long they will have to wait to get to their final destinations.


Promises of a “Golden Case”

When he was in Iran, Saadi looked at websites and identified profiles of groups on social media that promised to get him to the destination that he wanted. Some admins on social media promised that, after receiving a certain amount of money, they could build him a “golden case” — an asylum application case that could not fail. “I got to know somebody who wanted to go Europe with a group of refugees,” he says. “He told me that there were many asylum seekers in Cuba. I searched the web and found out that getting a Cuban visa was not difficult. I proceeded by myself and was able to get into this country.”

His flight was from Tehran to Moscow and then from Moscow to Havana. On the same flight there were two other Iranians whose destination was Ecuador. The moment that they got to Havana, the police took them into custody for several hours. “They took all of us to a room and ordered us to remove our clothes,” Saadi says. “Then they did a body search. They let the two Iranian young men go after taking away their packages of pistachios, but they told me that I could stay in Cuba for just 10 days, although my visa was valid for a month. I lied and said that I was there as a tourist but they repeated that I could stay in Cuba for only 10 days. They accompanied me to the airline’s office to change the date of my return ticket.”

I Just Want my Refugee Life in Cuba to Come to an End

Saadi Lotfi’s UNHCR certificate of application for asylum


After searching the web he found addresses to the offices of various human rights organizations in Havana. He went to UNICEF, and they contacted the UNHCR and sent him there. Lofti’s asylum process started on February 23, 2016.

The UN’s handling of asylum applications in Cuba follows the same process as it does in other countries, like Turkey. After registration, they set a date for interviewing the applicant that could be as long away as a year later. If the asylum seeker passes the interview, he or she must wait for their final destination to be decided. The wait depends on administrative procedures, decisions made by various governments and even political whims. For instance, Donald Trump’s decision to virtually close the door to Iranians has set back the asylum processes of many Iranian refugees who had chosen the US as their final destination.

From the time they are interviewed until the fate of their asylum applications is decided, the refugees in Cuba receive a monthly sum equivalent to around €140 for rent, food and other necessities.


Don’t Annoy the UN

Saadi Lotfi tells me that immediately after he arrived in Cuba and started his asylum process, other refugees warned him to avoid doing anything the UN might not approve of or endorse. Now, three years after his arrival and with his asylum application still pending, he feels that maybe his political pronouncements, made in public and expressed to other refugees, might have stalled his case, leaving him in limbo.

Two years ago, two people, who turned out to be police employees but who did not reveal their identity at the time, went to the university and questioned Lotfi’s girlfriend. “They asked her about the people that I associate with and my daily activities,” he says. “They were not in uniform and had no police identity cards. My girlfriend told them that she would only answer their questions in the presence of a lawyer. The agents did not press her on it and left. My girlfriend was scared. This kind of approach makes people suspicious of refugees and, as a result, a refugee is not treated as an ordinary person.”

Lofti brought the incident to the attention of the UNHCR and Cuba’s immigration agency but he was told that it was a matter for law enforcement.

For five months he suffered from an illness that the doctors could not diagnose. He had difficult days and nights and remembers them with bitterness. “There are medical facilities here but getting the medication is difficult,” he says. “Pharmacies do not readily give medication to refugees. Even though we have prescriptions from doctors, sometimes we have to go to every pharmacy to find an anti-fever drug for a child. An African friend had complained about this to the UNHCR office. ‘Go and search for it and you will find it,’ he was told. ‘What is it with you Africans that you get sick so much?’ And this is the behavior of a human rights official in an agency whose job is to help the refugees.”

Countless refugees have many stories of such racist, humiliating and even violent treatment. “We are refugees, not criminals,” many refugees from various countries have repeatedly told me. 

“This is my last attempt to speak loudly so that perhaps somebody will notice what is happening to us here,” Lofti says. “Cuba must understand that we are here because we are refugees and they must stop making us feel scared and insecure. I will not stay silent.”

Lofti says that sometimes he feels that he has been followed by native Cubans, similar to what has been happening in Papua New Guinea, where refugees have lived in camps for years under an agreement between that country and Australia. The media regularly report clashes between the refugees and the natives of Papua New Guinea.

These suspicions have even seeped into relations among refugees themselves. The same lack of trust that one observes among refugees in Turkey, especially among Iranian refugees, can be seen in Cuba as well. They accuse each other of being spies or mercenaries and threaten each other to inform the UN.

In such an environment, most refugees feel that they are being punished by all sides, including their own, merely for being refugees.


Related Coverage:

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Sexual Harassment, Depression and Suicide: the Story of Iranian Women Refugees in Greece, 5 February 2020

We Do Everything, I Mean Everything, To Escape From Our Greek Hell, 28 January 2020

The War of Human Trafficking, 14 January 2020

Iranian Refugees in Zeebrugge: Desperate Dreams of Britain, January 11, 2019

Racial Conflict Ends in Devastating Fire at Greece’s Samos Refugee Camp, October 17, 2019

Refugees Fight Racism and Insults in Greece, October 1, 2019

Exposed: Ranko, the Crooked Human Trafficker, 18 September 2019

A Life Lost: Two Decades of Asylum-Seeking in Calais, August 30, 2019

Iranian Human Traffickers and the Journey Across the Balkans, August 19, 2019

Rape and Sexual Abuse is Common, August 8, 2019



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