Unlikely migrant path brings Cuban family to Serbia
SOT, Serbia (AP) — Far away from sandy beaches and a balmy Caribbean breeze, a Cuban family huddles together in a cramped room of a cold, wind-swept Serbian refugee center, trying to figure out what to do next.
They are part of an unlikely influx of Cuban migrants to the Balkans that began in 2015 before neighboring European Union countries sealed off their borders for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and poverty.
Now the Amor family of three is stuck in non-EU Serbia — besides Cuba, the last place they want to be.
“I know that life here is hard, really, really hard,” Michael Amor said, sitting on a bunk bed flanked by his wife Ingrid and 13-year-old daughter Samira.
“The crossing to here I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Life is very difficult. What I want is to live a little bit better for my daughter,” he said.
Amor’s construction job earned him only $30 a month in Cuba and the family had to sell their small house and other belongings before starting their journey 18 months ago. He had hoped to get to Spain to meet up with relatives but became stuck in Serbia after EU nations cracked down on border crossings.
“If I would have to do the journey again, I would. But I don’t know what is going to be the end to this, I don’t know if I’m going to get to Spain to be able to meet up with my family,” he said.
“I prefer to be here in a camp with my daughter than in prison in Cuba,” he added.
In 2013, the Cuban government lifted most travel restrictions on its citizens. However, the ability to travel overseas still depends on foreign governments’ willingness to grant visas to Cuban citizens, which EU nations and other Western countries do rarely.
Like most Cubans who have arrived in the Balkans, the Amor family first flew to Russia and then to Serbia via Montenegro, where Cubans can get tourist visas at airports.
Most Cuban migrants waiting in Serbia to enter EU territory say they had no choice but to make the trip after the U.S. early last year revoked Cubans’ special migration status that allowed them to stay if they reached U.S. territory.
Official statistics show 170 Cubans registered in Serbia in 2017, although the number is certainly higher now as many refuse to register with authorities, fearing they could be deported.
In the Serbian refugee center just yards from the Croatian border, the Amor family shares a tiny room with a four-member Somali family, leaving little space for privacy or comfort. Amor says he tried to seek asylum in EU-member Croatia but was rejected. He can barely pay for food and has no money to pay migrant smugglers to take the family over the border illegally.
“I don’t know what to do but we have to continue trying,” he said.