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In search of refuge

International | As refugee bureaucracies proliferate, the road to freedom winds ever more twisted

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

America is the enduring symbol of sanctuary for most who want to escape political or religious oppression abroad. Earlier this month two Cuban doctors and a lawyer turned up at the U.S. embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, in search of political asylum. In June a dentist and a general practitioner from Cuba, this time on duty in Zimbabwe, showed up at the doorstep of the American embassy in Harare with a similar mission. No one told these defectors that the Cold War is over. Communism may still oppress, but the United States no longer gives a wide-armed, Lady Liberty-style welcome to those who fear its grip. In the day-to-day processing of refugees, the voyage to the United States-with growing regularity-includes a detour through the United Nations immigration bureaucracy. The number of applications for asylum accepted by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service decreased in July 2000 by 11 percent compared to the number filed in July 1999. The decline in part reflects the growing number of cases picked up by the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the half-light between taking flight and finding refuge, strange bureaucratic phenomena can get in the way. Exhibit #1: Cuban doctors in Zimbabwe
Noris Peña Martínez, a 25-year-old dentist, and Leonel Córdova Rodríguez, a 31-year-old physician, arrived at the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe May 26 to ask U.S. officials about political asylum. That same day the two Cuban doctors, part of a visiting medical team of 150, were quoted by a local paper denouncing the policies of Cuban President Fidel Castro. U.S. embassy officials referred the doctors to the UNHCR for evaluation. At UNHCR offices the doctors were admitted to a "transit center," a detention facility where refugees and asylum seekers are often held for nearly endless paperwork processing. After almost a week of what UNHCR spokesman Dominik Bartsch called "rudimentary" accommodations, Dr. Peña and Dr. Córdova found better shelter in a private home while awaiting the outcome of their UNHCR application. Several nights later, armed soldiers seized them from their beds and jailed them. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, a long-time Castro ally, said he would deport the doctors to Cuba. A commercial pilot for Air France stepped in where no American or UN official would tread. As police tried to put the Cubans onto a flight that would send them back to Cuba, the doctors slipped a handwritten note to a crew member claiming they were kidnapped. The pilot refused to transport them. After 32 days in a Zimbabwe prison and much negotiation among immigration authorities, the doctors gained passage to Sweden, then asylum status in the United States. UNHCR's Mr. Bartsch said his agency was not responsible for what happened to the doctors. He said they made themselves vulnerable to the June 2 seizure by leaving the UNHCR transit center. But it is unlikely the Zimbabwe police would have known their whereabouts without information from the UNHCR. The U.S. State Department, in formal statements, also defended its embassy, saying it initially turned away the doctors because they did not specifically request "sanctuary" on embassy grounds. "During the Cold War when a defector ran to our embassy in Moscow, did we tell them to go to the UN?" asked Marc Thiessen, press spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Every embassy, as part of its procedures, should advise defectors like these that they have the option of receiving sanctuary." Congressional pressure from Sen. Helms and Cuban-American lawmakers brought a successful-if delayed-end to the case, and by early September Dr. Peña and Dr. Córdova had requested Social Security cards and applied for jobs in Miami, where they are staying with friends or relatives. Both plan to take up medical practice in the United States if they can pass the required professional boards. Exhibit #2: Cuban doctors (plus lawyer) in Zambia
Just as the case in Zimbabwe ended, Cuban doctors in Zambia, in a similar foreign service program sponsored by Mr. Castro, asked for political asylum at the U.S. embassy. Rodolfo Bello Ramos and Jose Miguel Gutierrez Rodriguez, along with the wife of Mr. Gutierrez, attorney Maylen Mustelier, defected in early September. Once again, asylum was not assured, according to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has petitioned the State Department and the U.S. ambassador to Zambia, David Dunn, to grant their request. The doctors had served for several years at the Cuban medical mission in Zambia but feared returning to Cuba. The case could be taken up by the United States or handed over to UNHCR. Ironically, UNHCR is considering a proposal from Mr. Castro to employ Cuban doctors at international refugee camps. UNHCR head Sadako Ogata and Mr. Castro discussed the plan at a two-hour meeting in Havana. Exhibit #3: Somali Christian in Yemen
UNHCR officials in Yemen registered Mohamed Omer Haji, 27, as Case No. 11911 after he fled fighting in Somalia in 1994. In 1998, his case still pending, Mr. Haji became a Christian; he will not say how the transformation occurred for fear of incriminating others. Since Yemen is a strictly Islamic state, and the constitution forbids conversion from Islam, Mr. Haji became the subject of harassment from both Yemeni police and UNHCR officials. In January 2000 Yemeni police arrested Mr. Haji. They took him to a local police station and held him for 23 days in the port city of Aden. Police moved him to Mansoora Jail, where he was kept until mid-March. Mr. Haji said officials gave him no reason for the arrests except his Christian faith. While authorities held him, the Islamic Al Sahwah newspaper carried an article claiming both Mr. Haji and his wife were born of Muslim parents in Somalia but had converted. A similar report, headlined "Two Somali Refugees Embrace Christianity, Abandon Islam" appeared in the Feb. 7 Yemen Times, an English-language weekly. After those reports, police interrogated Mr. Haji about other Somali Christians he might know and beat him repeatedly. He said two UNHCR officials visited him during that time, urging him to recant his Christian testimony so the case could be resolved. Mr. Haji refused, and the harassment and intimidation continued. His wife asked a UNHCR representative for help to buy milk for their infant son during Mr. Haji's detention, but she was refused. Mr. Haji was released briefly but was rearrested in June and charged with apostasy. At a July 5 trial a Yemen court judge gave him one week to return to Islam-or face execution. The judge repeated the ultimatum at a July 9 closed-door hearing; UNHCR staff were present, but no one told Mr. Haji's court-appointed lawyer of the hearing. Then Mr. Haji's case made international headlines. On July 11 Amnesty International demanded his release, saying he was "detained solely on account of his religious beliefs." On July 17 Mr. Haji gained transfer to an immigrant detention facility and UNHCR began negotiations with Yemeni authorities for his release. In late July the New Zealand government offered Mr. Haji and his family asylum. For Yemen, that solution was too simple-and Western. They objected to the precedent it could set for other refugees. So, after extensive negotiations, the Yemen government allowed Mr. Haji and his family to go to Asmara, the capital of (mostly Muslim) Eritrea; then to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and then to Bombay, Singapore, and Sydney. On Aug. 30 they arrived in Aukland. "This is a very far place here," a jet-lagged Mr. Haji told Compass Direct news service. "It's a miracle that I am free."-with reporting from Compass Direct news service

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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