Chasing Dreams in El Dorado

Natalia Lozano on six Cubans seeking humanitarian refugee status in Colombia

After living in an airport for ten days, these six Cubans seek refuge in Colombia

After living in an airport for ten days, these six Cubans seek refuge in Colombia

On January 10, six Cubans began a hunger strike in the transit zone of El Dorado airport in Bogotá, Colombia.

The reason:  Force the Colombian government to grant them refugee status.

Their “strike” finished hours later when, following an intervention from the UN Refugee Agency, Migración Colombia, the Colombian migration authority, gave the Cubans authorization to enter Bogotá.

The authorization was valid through last Friday, January 17. The Cubans had until this day to prove the Colombian government that they in fact would be persecuted in their home country if they were not granted asylum.

That day has come and gone…and still no news.

The Cubans, one woman and five men, arrived as transit passengers en route to Cuba when they refused to leave Colombia, the so-called happiest country in the world, on January 1. The six were traveling through Colombia after the migration authorities of Ecuador denied them entry to the neighboring country.

Referencing the lack of economic opportunities and the dreams deffered in their home country, the six have refused to return to Cuba. They publically destroyed their flight tickets.

However, without a visa to enter Colombia, they were stuck between doors 31 and 32 of the terminal for days.

A story that many have compared, tongue in cheek, with the plot of the movie The Terminal, is now a hot topic that is approaching the most dramatic part of the script.

One hunger strike and many statements of rebellion later, the Cubans are finally out of the terminal. However, their stay in Colombia may be short-lived. To this point, they have yet to present a case of personal persecution in Cuba. It seems that the only danger they are exposed to is in consequence to their refusal to go back to the island to begin with.

Decision time

Decision time in Bogota

Not a well-founded case

After a meeting with the six, Luis Ernesto de la Fe Montaner, the Cuban consul in Colombia, told the media that none of them meet the characteristics of a refugee.

Of course, de la Fe Montaner’s opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, he is a representative of the government the six Cubans hope to escape.

However, in this case, he may have a point. Typically, refugee status is reserved for those that “have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” It is not clear that the six Cubans meet this definition.

The Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, María Ángela Holguín, has been emphatic in her declarations that the case will be interpreted in terms of the letter of the law, particularly Colombian decree 2840 of 2013 and the 1951 International Convention relating to the status of refugees.

In fact, Colombia has a long tradition of providing asylum and protection to those who need it. But the decision has never been taken lightly.  From 2010 to 2013, Colombia received 434 asylum applications of which 31 were recognized as refugees.

The Colombian Chancellor said that more than 62 percent of the people that ask for asylum use Colombia as a strategic location to stay a few days before traveling to another destination.

Will the diplomatic incident affect Colombian peace talks in Havana?

Will the diplomatic incident affect Colombian peace talks in Havana?

Colombian Opinion is Divided

And many are concerned that the international dilemma could effect Colombian peace talks currently underway in Havana. Some feel that Colombia will reject the asylum request in deference to Raúl Castro, who has hosted the peace negotiations.

Some have echoed the words of Jay Barrios, one of the Cubans, who has stated  “We need help because we’re desperate, if we return to Cuba we’re dead.” Holders of this opinion feel the Colombian government must admit the six in name of human rights.

Others categorically refuse the idea of allowing the Cubans to stay, arguing that, because of the migration reform in Cuba, if Colombia admits these Cubans, thousands more may try to follow suit.

My take

I am not in the “save the Cubans from Cuba” team, nor in the “send the Cubans back to Castro” team.

I believe that any one should be free to fight for their dreams. But at the same time, it seems that “humanitarian refugee” has a particular definition. We Colombians know this better than anyone. Over the last couple decades tens of thousands of Colombians have been displaced by civil war.

For the time being, the saga continues. And as we all wish for the best for the six asylum seekers, I leave you with the words of Orlando Pardo Lazo, a Cuban writer and editor of the magazine ‘Voices’, talking about his fellow citizens in El Dorado:

“Es lamentable cómo imponemos enseguida cierto caos donde quiera que nos aparecemos en masa, como una marea incivil. Forzando las legislaciones de otros países, mientras que somos incapaces de exigir uno solo de nuestros derechos de cara al Gobierno cubano”.

cuba flag

Natalia is an international relations specialist working in Bogotá, Colombia

See more by Natalia HERE

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