From Havana to Moscow. Then another flight to Belgrade, to meet the smugglers who can take them through Macedonia to Greece. And finally, a last plane from Greece to Spain. It is one of the most incredible transatlantic routes that hundreds of Cubans have taken to reach Europe in recent years. A route made possible by human traffickers which recently came under the scrutiny of the Greek authorities.
But on entering Greece, despite an asylum request, Cuban migrants are expelled to Turkey, a country that is totally unknown to them. “I didn’t expect any of this,” says Castillo, a 30-year-old anesthesiologist from Havana. “When I left Cuba, I could not imagine that I would arrive in Europe to be deported a few days later to a country where I had never been.”
Like thousands of other Cubans, Castillo left the island to escape economic hardship and political repression, hoping to find better opportunities in Europe. Instead, he found himself undocumented in Istanbul.
“Cuban friends who had traveled before me told me that if I went to Russia I could contact networks that organize the trip to Spain via Greece”
US sanctions and the Covid pandemic have had a combined effect on the island’s economy, with the whole country facing severe shortages of food and basic commodities, and pushing many of the country’s young people to seek better economic opportunities abroad. Cuban emigration for political and economic reasons has historically been to the United States. But measures introduced during the Trump presidency and still maintained by the current Biden presidency have made it much harder for Cubans to find asylum in the United States.
The 2018 Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, require asylum seekers seeking protection in the United States to wait in Mexico while their case is processed. Additionally, in March 2020, the United States largely suspended the right to seek asylum through Title 42, a law that allows for the deportation of anyone who illegally enters the United States without the right to seek asylum. asylum, in the name of preventing the spread. of covid.
For this reason, Cubans had to look for other destinations. Traveling to Russia and then to Europe became the most viable way. Russia is one of 26 countries that do not require visas for Cubans, and one of the few in the Western Hemisphere. “Cuban friends who had traveled before me told me that if I went to Russia, I could contact networks that organize the trip to Spain via Greece,” explains Álvaro, another Cuban interviewed in Istanbul.
Álvaro managed to return to Moscow after being expelled from Greece to Turkey. “I couldn’t stay in Istanbul after being expelled from Greece. Those were the three worst days of my life. Like Castillo, Álvaro had arrived in Russia and from there secured the services of trafficking networks to reach Greece. He had traveled to Moscow with a friend from Cuba, they both wanted to go to Spain. “We had to wait a few nights in abandoned houses along the Macedonian-Greece border before the smugglers showed us the way to the Greek town of Polikastro.”
After 10 hours of walking in the dark to cross the border with Greece, Álvaro and his friend took a bus to Thessaloniki, and from there another to Athens. “Shortly after leaving the Thessaloniki bus station, the bus stopped and police in riot gear entered, arresting all the migrants on the bus, including us.”
Held in a military warehouse with other Cubans, Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans, Álvaro says he was stripped naked and beaten with plastic oars before being forced at gunpoint to cross the Evros River in Turkey, in one of Greece’s routine comebacks. The agents did not register any of their asylum applications in the country.
“Shortly after leaving the Thessaloniki bus station, the bus stopped and police in riot gear entered, arresting all the migrants on the bus, including us.”
Pushbacks of this type from Greece to Turkey have been on the increase since the European migration crisis of 2015. Pushbacks are a practice by which a state forces a migrant to cross the border through which he entered without taking into account your particular situation. .
In February 2020, in a political move aimed at putting pressure on Europe, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan “opened the doors of Europe” allowing thousands of people to arrive and cross the border between Turkey and Greece. Greece responded with a heavily militarized reaction on the border, applauded by the EU chief for being the “shield of Europe”. Since then, the frequency and level of violence of pushbacks from Greece have increased exponentially to become a systematic practice, leading to increasingly frequent deaths on this border.
On February 2, 2022, more than 20 people froze to death after being stripped naked and pushed from Greece to Turkey, an incident that continued to occur through the first months of 2022. It was on these same days that Lino and Yudith, a 50-year-old Cuban couple, were violently pushed into Turkey. Like others before them, the couple had traveled to Greece using the previously described route from Moscow to Greece.
However, unlike Castillo and Álvaro, the couple had been in Greece for more than three months, hosted and registered at a migrant reception center in Thessaloniki, before being sent to Turkey. The couple had been there since arriving in Greece in October, waiting to register their asylum application with the Greek authorities.
“I have a sister who has lived in Greece for 22 years. She helped us come to Greece,” Lino explained. After three months of waiting to register their asylum application in Europe, Lino and Yudith decided to take care of themselves and register their asylum application at the police headquarters. “There, a Greek official told us that we had to register our application in Orestiada, a town near the border. But it was a lie.”
Instead of registering their asylum application in Greece, the couple were arrested, detained in a van overnight by Greek police and forced to cross the Evros River into Turkey by men in balaclavas early in the morning.
Instead of registering their asylum application in Greece, the couple were arrested, detained in a van overnight by Greek police and forced to cross the Evros River into Turkey by men in balaclavas early in the morning. “They expelled us from Greece to a country we had never been to, like this, without explanation. The police took everything from us, my wife’s shoes and even medicine,” Lino said.
Lino and Yudith, like Castillo and Álvaro, are just a few of the growing community of Cubans illegally deported to Turkey from Greece. Deprived of any papers, they survive thanks to the help sent by their family and friends in Cuba and Europe.
Turkey currently hosts over 4 million migrants and refugees, and is the country hosting the largest number of displaced people in the world. Cubans cannot apply for asylum in Turkey. They can apply for international protection, but this is not granted to people who have passed through a safe third country after leaving their country of origin.
“I’m trapped,” Castilo said. “I can’t go back to Cuba because I would be punished if I left, but neither can I live here illegally in a country I never chose to come to.”
*Castillo and Álvaro are pseudonyms used to protect the identity of interviewees for this article.