Asylum Seekers, Then and Now

A Short History of Escape


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

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