A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.

At the end of April, as the world tuned in to the blind Chinese lawyer and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng's dramatic flight to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, two young Cuban actors were shaking off their minders in Miami. They were on their way to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where Una Noche, a film in which they star, was to be screened. The movie, ironically, is about young Cubans who want to defect, which is what the actors did. What is more, it was co-produced in Cuba.

Oppressive regimes excel at generating asylum seekers; the more oppressive the regime, the more people want to flee it. But nasty governments don't all oppress alike. Some authoritarians grant political opponents permission to travel (passports, exit visas, and so on), "good riddance" being their modus operandi.

Up until a year ago, for example, the rulers of Myanmar (also called Burma) would have been happiest to see Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party, leave the country so that they could avoid the arduous and unpopular task of holding her under house arrest. Indeed, they tried very hard to push her out, constantly suggesting that she was already a foreigner because she married one. None of their attempts worked, and now Suu Kyi is inside the country's parliament, trying to push the junta toward a more democratic system.

If some oppressive regimes such as Myanmar simply do not want dissenters at home, others -- of the totalitarian family, so to speak -- fear allowing them to go abroad, where they could broadcast their resistance loud and clear, bolstering internal opposition. So they refuse travel documents and torment the dissenters at home. In the former Soviet Union, those denied exit -- especially Soviet Jews -- were even given a name: refuseniks.

The Soviet leaders eventually learned that in some cases it was politically cheaper to silence by exile than to hold especially vocal protesters at home. In 1972, the Kremlin suggested that the poet Joseph Brodsky (who was called anti-Soviet, schizophrenic, and socially parasitic) emigrate to Israel, adding together their anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism. When he refused, they frog-marched him onto a plane heading to Vienna. (In 1991, Brodsky, who was my friend and neighbor in New York, was named U.S. poet laureate.) The Kremlin sighed with relief two years later upon expelling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had spent eight years in a Soviet gulag and had documented, as no one else could, what life was like there.

The majority of the world's oppressive regimes stick to offering their most active opponents jail time or closely monitored house arrest. And they certainly avoid giving the dissenters a chance to go abroad. For those living under this type of regime, the only foreign soil plausibly available is a nearby embassy, consulate, cultural center, or any of the other premises that the Vienna Convention identifies as "inviolable."

That brings us to Chen, who on April 22 sought haven in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Although his case attracted a lot of attention (mostly because it coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the country), China is not a leader in breeding asylum seekers.

That distinction is shared by Cuba, for the quantity of departures, and North Korea, for the frequency of attempts.

Typically, Havana does not let its dissidents, or indeed its citizens, leave the country. The tarjeta blanca, a document that allows citizens to cross the border, is reserved only for those who toe the line. Once in the outside world, they are expected to sing the glory of the regime. So, stuck on their island with no escape route other than the sea, Cuban asylum seekers have crashed the gates of the embassies of Ecuador, France, Mexico, Spain, and the house of a Belgian diplomat.

Let's not forget that one of the biggest recent waves of defections there started in 1980, with a mass occupation of the Peruvian embassy. Some 10,000 people crowded into the mission grounds. To avoid a major epidemic -- and a major embarrassment -- Cuban ruler Fidel Castro decided to open the floodgates and simply let those at the embassy (and many others, too) leave for the United States. The condition: Someone had to come pick them up at the Cuban port of Mariel. Most every bona fide asylum seeker was put on a boat with a prison inmate or mental patient. On Castro's orders, the boat owners could not take along their loved ones unless they also took these extra passengers. Some 125,000 people are believed to have left Cuba as so-called Marielitos.

North Korea's Kim dynasty has no tolerance for freedom of movement, or for that matter, a Cuban-style extravaganza like the "Mariel boatlift." Asylum seekers have trickled out of North Korea slowly and steadily. The numbers add up; a few thousand are thought to escape each year, according to the South Korean Ministry of Unification. Most of those who crash diplomatic missions on their way to freedom -- the Danish embassy in Vietnam, Spanish or German embassies in Beijing, an escape through Thailand or Cambodia -- settle in South Korea.

A close contender for third in the race of asylum seekers storming foreign embassies is Albania. In 1990, Tirana's embassy row was the target of 6,000 Albanians desperate for freedom. And they did not just descend on the usual destination embassies, such as those of Western European countries and the United States, but also on those of Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, and Turkey. This was a replay of the roundabout way in which East German citizens had gone to West Germany via embassies in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest a year before. Budapest itself had once housed the dean of all asylum-in-embassy seekers, the Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty. He was a staunch anticommunist who took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest in 1956 and lived there for 15 years.

In other words, Chen, although momentarily the most famous asylum seeker, is not all that unique. Neither is he probably the last one to try the hospitality of a foreign mission when driven to the extreme by persecution or house arrest. The only durable way to deal with asylum seekers is to help countries become real democracies from which citizens do not want to flee.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now