Cuban Migrants Face Dramatic Mistreatment in Serbia

Photo montage: Sadiel Mederos (courtesy of the source)

By Jose Leandro Garbey Castillo (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Nine men, lying on some beds and on the floor, await the strident noise of the iron door opening – the door between them and freedom. Every day, they’re awakened once or twice by the sound, indicating the arrival of food. Their collective yearning is for the officials to notify them that they’re being released from jail, or, at least, returned to their country. Either option is valid. They’ve been in detention for several weeks now, with no apparent motive. The Serbian authorities haven’t told them anything, but they assume that their current disgrace is linked to their origin, since they’re Cubans.

The group arrived at the Belgrade-Nikola Tesla airport at 10 PM Serbian time, on March 9, 2023. All of them had their papers in order, but when they passed through the immigration control office they were blocked from entering the country. They were conducted to a cubicle that barely measured six meters by four, in which they would remain, crowded together, for weeks.

The room was stark. Tiny windows and a grille through which air barely circulated. Four metal bunks with foam mattresses and no sheets. The heater, located up high, could only be felt on the upper bunks. On the ground, a lot of dust. And grime. Across the corridor, the metal door of an unventilated bathroom. Cold water. Stink. Several times a day, those detained tried to minimize the smell of urine that emanated from the shower drain, using shampoo and gel.

Up until April 14, Serbia was one of the few countries Cuban nationals could enter without a visa. Beginning on that date, Cuban travelers must request a tourist or business visa to enter Serbian soil. Many Cubans had set off from that Balkan nation, following risky immigration routes in hopes of reaching the European Union. The April decision was preluded by a considerable increase in the flow of migrants, and multiple denunciations from Cuban migrants of violations of international law on the part of the local security forces.

Starting point on the journey

“From time to time the guards entered to laugh at us. They threw our food into a box – bread, water and sometimes some cereal or crackers. The first few days, they gave us four packages: two for the morning, two for the afternoon and evening. Later, there were only three. One day, we went twenty-four hours without eating; other times, there was only one meal.  There were times they didn’t give us water, and we had to drink from the sink. A lot of Cubans have gone through this: an ex-girlfriend of mine suffered the same treatment,” declared Jose, who was deported back to Cuba.

Jose and Orestes lived through this hellish treatment. Together, they had decided to cross Eastern Europe in order to reach Spain, where the former’s uncles were waiting for them. Serbia would be the starting point for their journey, and they paid almost three thousand dollars for the airline tickets. Jose had abandoned his studies years earlier and was working as a clerk in a Caracol store in Las Tunas, Cuba. The Cuban reality was strangling him.

“We had the money and our papers, including a letter of invitation that a Serbian friend had written for us, who was even going to receive us in his home. We weren’t going to a motel, but even with his telephone number in hand, the agents never allowed me to call him to corroborate the story. Right away they separated out all the Cubans. They took our passports. They didn’t interview us at all. They just yelled and ordered us to shut up. That was in their own language. They didn’t speak much English. They were aggressive. They laughed at us. They got a kick out of seeing us in this situation.”

Only mothers with children and a few older couples were allowed to pass through without hindrances. The rest, including a 13-year-old girl with high blood pressure and heart problems, who needed medical attention, were all detained.

“At two in the morning on March 10, they loaded us onto a bus and took us to a separate area within the airport. The cells there were in terrible condition. The next day, no one came to talk to us. Not Immigration and not the Police. They didn’t tell us why we’d been taken to that place,” they recalled.

Fernando Almeyda, a Cuban lawyer exiled in Serbia who specializes in human rights, affirms that March was a complicated month for Cuban migrants. Those arriving on some flights from Frankfort, Germany, the city where airplanes coming from Cuba have a layover, were arrested in the airport.

Almeyda, who also serves as legal director for the non-profit organization Prisoners’ Defenders (PD), told El Toque that nearly 60 Cubans were sent to detention centers inside the airport, and given only bread and water for sustenance. “We suppose that many were victims of swindles on the part of the authorities, who charged them 500 Euros [US $548], supposedly for asylum papers. Cubans in that situation had three options: accept being sent back to Frankfort and from there flown back to Cuba; request political asylum and be conducted to some refugee camp in Serbia; or continue waiting in the airport.”

Almeyda had limited access to five of these Cubans, but only two opted to disclose the information about their identities. According to the attorney, the migrants were afraid to ask for asylum, since if they were then denied asylum and deported, the Cuban regime would then class them as “confessed political dissidents” and subject them to repressive measures when they returned to the island. They preferred to continue waiting.

One of the migrants in this group began a hunger strike and continued for five or six days in protest. The lawyer stressed that the “emergency actions were very delayed because the Cubans refused to denounce their own situation, which meant that some spent over a week in terrible detention conditions.”

In general, “many were deported for lack of information and for the poor proceedings of the Serbian authorities, who didn’t inform them of their rights or provide the assistance of a translator,” Almeyda commented.

Given the situation, PD contacted human rights organizations and lawyers in Serbia. Through their mediation, they were able to “submit several alerts to the Ombudsman in Serbia, which is the independent organization assigned to monitor human rights violations in each country. Denunciations about the situation of those detained were sent to this institution,” Almeyda explained.

The level of mistreatment towards Cubans decreased. A second group of migrants had access to information about filing a request for asylum and about their rights in Serbia, in addition to English interpreters to improve communication.

Uncertainty in the Easter European countries

From inside their tiny cubicle in the airport, the Cubans communicated with the outside world via a Spanish telephone connection that Jose hid from the guards. “My family was going crazy, contacting lawyers, looking for a way to get us out. My aunt told me that at one point the [Serbian] consul told them that they couldn’t do anything for us, because we weren’t on Serbian soil. That was his response. What more can be expected of them? The Cuban consul in Belgrade, all those diplomats, forget that they’re supposed to serve us,” remarked Jose, now back in Cuba.

Those who were trying to accompany Jose were unable to make contact with the Cuban Embassy in Belgrade. Other relatives of those involved, friends who reside in Serbia, and even lawyers haven’t received any response from the Cuban mission.

On March 15, the group Jose and Orestes formed part of, and which had been kept detained in the Belgrade airport, had their passports returned to them together with a ticket back to Frankfort, in order to travel to Havana the next day.

The resident of las Tunas asserted that he’s still going to leave Cuba, although he doesn’t know the route of his next journey. However, that’s his dream and that of thousands of young Cubans who don’t see any tangible future on the island.

Like him, others have been mistreated by the local security forces in different Eastern European countries. One of the best known cases was that of two Cuban migrants who arrived in Belarus in January 2023, and later denounced being beaten there on several occasions, including being “hunted” with a dog.

In March 2022, over thirty Cubans affirmed they’d been attacked by Belarussian soldiers. Poland’s Border Patrols forbade them entry into the European Union. Similar episodes of violence from the Croatian police have been documented by El Toque.

On April 14, 2023, ten Cuban travelers were sent back to Havana from Istanbul. According to information from the OnCuba website, they were coming from Russia and didn’t have a visa to enter Serbia.

Apparently, the Serbian route has reached its end.

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