NEW YORK, DEC. 1 -- Fanus Markos, an Ethiopian refugee, said today that he has eaten no food for nine days to protest his 14-month detention here in a dreary immigration jail in lower Manhattan.

"People advised me that America is a human rights country and I should seek political asylum," said Markos, 31, a rail-thin man in sandals and a mustard-colored jail uniform. "We want freedom, that's why we start hunger strike."

In this drab building, the Service Processing Center at 201 Varick St., immigration authorities received an unmistakable warning early this year that simmering frustrations among foreign detainees had reached the boiling point. In January, officials say, some of the 75 Cubans detained here went on a rampage with handmade weapons, set several fires and destroyed half of the minimum-security jail.

The 75 Cubans were transferred to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where they were among inmates who overran the facility Nov. 23 and took scores of hostages. They rioted to protest a newly revived agreement to deport about 2,500 Cuban refugees, but their grievances were nurtured here.

The 120 refugees at the Varick Street jail are caught in a legal limbo. Markos is one of about 30 detainees -- from such countries as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Iran, Ghana, Zaire and Chad -- who admit that they came to New York with fraudulent passports, seeking asylum.

The remaining three-quarters, like many of the Cuban inmates in Atlanta, are convicted criminals who have completed their prison sentences and are being held for deportation. The asylum-seekers say they feel uncomfortable sharing dormitory rooms with these offenders, some of whom are violent.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has discretion to detain or parole the refugees while they seek asylum or legal residence, holds them on the converted fourth floor of a federal office building.

Arthur C. Helton, who represents many of the detainees as a member of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said the detention policy is particularly "brutal and purposeless" when applied to asylum-seekers with no criminal background.

"It simply inflicts injury on people for no legitimate reason," he said. "You're not going to get a passport from the persecuting authorities in Kabul if you're an Afghan freedom fighter."

J. Scott Blackman, assistant INS director for detention and deportation in New York, said that his agency is "constantly reviewing" the refugees' cases and that "the vast majority" eventually are paroled.

"The reason people are detained for such a long period of time is certainly not because we want to keep people detained for 12 to 14 months," Blackman said. "The process . . . is a very lengthy one."

That explanation gives little comfort to Larry George Brown, 29, a Nicaraguan who fled the civil war in his country by stowing away aboard a Greek ship bound for New York.

"I've had 12 months in here, and they don't tell me anything -- just promises, promises, tomorrow, later," Brown said in a locked waiting room, a jail guard at his side.

"If there was no war in my country, I wouldn't leave my country. I come here as a refugee. I don't see where that's a crime. What happened to me? Just because I'm black, they keep me here?"

Ironically, the INS is forced to release many of the detainees after their appeals are exhausted because it cannot to find a country willing to accept them.

The INS often tries to return refugees to third countries through which they passed on their way here -- many Afghans come through India and Pakistan, for example -- but usually without success. Moreover, the administration has declared that it will not return refugees to Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Uganda.

"They get out if they win asylum, and they get out if they lose, but not while their cases are being examined," Helton said.

Refugees who fly into New York are being singled out for detention because airports are easier to police than wilderness crossings on the U.S.-Mexican border, Helton said. Thousands of illegal immigrants apprehended there are routinely released on bond.

Besides the Varick Street inmates, 18 other Afghan refugees have been held since last week at the Cross Bay Motor Inn in Queens. Blackman said the detainees are kept near John F. Kennedy International Airport so they can be deported quickly, but he said some stay at the motel for two to three months.

Most of the detainees followed circuitous paths to New York. They fled circumstances as diverse as the civil war in Chad and the violent Khomeini regime in Iran.

Brown left the Nicaraguan military police after being harassed by Cuban advisers working for the Sandinista government. He fled to Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico before coming here by ship last December. Brown says he is afraid to return home because his brother was arrested by the Sandinistas three years ago and has not been heard from since.

Markos distributed antigovernment pamphlets as an Ethiopian student, was imprisoned there for one year and later joined an antigovernment revolutionary group. Several of his relatives were killed by government soldiers. Markos passed through five African countries before making his way to Paris and catching a flight to New York.

Ghulam Hussaini left Afghanistan after his family was harassed by the Soviet-controlled government there. He fled to Pakistan, where last December he bought a false passport and ticket to New York for $1,800.

A senior INS official said many refugees falsely claim persecution by their home government after living in a third country for months or years. "They have been found deportable from the United States, but the country of asylum won't accept them," he said. "It's very similar to the situation you had with the Cubans," who until recently could not be returned to Cuba because President Fidel Castro would not accept them.

"If they had fraudulent documents, it's a very anguishing thing to condone that behavior and grant them asylum. It sends a signal to thousands of similarly situated people that that's an avenue to take."

Ultimately, the INS has little choice but to parole most refugees. Sometimes political pressure is involved. Thirty-three Afghan refugees here were paroled last year under a deal brokered by three members of Congress.

The Varick Street disturbance last January came after some Cubans had staged a hunger strike. Helton said the INS agreed to review their cases and found that one-third were eligible for release. But all of the Cubans were sent to the prison in Atlanta after the uprising.

Blackman said the Cubans required tighter security -- and they had destroyed their living quarters here.

Now Blackman is facing the fourth hunger strike in three years. In a written statement last week, 17 inmates declared: "We can no longer be detained for the rest of our lives. Therefore, we are ready to starve to death . . . unless INS review{s} our cases and release{s} us from INS detention."