A July 23, 1990 article on Newfoundland as a haven for refugees omitted a reference to Lisa Gilad's "The Northern Route," a book published by The Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, as the source of information in two sentences. (Published 1/31/91)

ST. JOHN'S, NEWFOUNDLAND -- The days pass slowly for Ileana Hernandez Montes and her husband, Nelson Quincosa Fernandez, while they sit in their Spartan walk-up apartment, far from their home in Cuba, and dread having to spend another winter of numbing arctic winds blowing in from the Labrador Sea.

"It gets very cold here. To live here in this cold, with different manners and different customs, we would have to have been persecuted in our country, or why else would we come to a place like this?" Hernandez Montes said in hesitant but precise English.

In all likelihood, the couple will have to spend another winter on this isolated and windswept Canadian island because a government board twice has denied them official status as refugees on the grounds that they do not have a "reasonable fear of persecution" if they return to Cuba.

Hernandez Montes, 28, who is a teacher, and her husband, a 25-year-old professional photographer, stepped off a Soviet Aeroflot jetliner during a refueling stop between Moscow and Havana last Dec. 4 and hid in a washroom at Gander International Airport until the plane took off.

They then approached an immigration officer and asked for political asylum, in line with a plan to defect they had worked out months before their honeymoon visit to the Soviet Union. Both said they had come under suspicion in Cuba because of their anti-communist views and feared political persecution.

The couple are among nearly 2,000 refugees who have stepped off planes at Gander this year, making Newfoundland the unlikely destination of choice for defectors from countries as diverse as Cuba, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Haiti, China, Iran and Sri Lanka.

It is ironic that Newfoundland has become a haven for asylum seekers because before it joined the Canadian confederation in 1949, the former British colony had exclusionary policies that made it extremely difficult for immigrants, much less refugees, to settle on the island unless they were of British descent.

The Chinese, for example, were forced to pay an almost prohibitive $300 entry tax, and Chinese women were not even given entry permits.

Even today, the insular and clannish "Newfies," as Newfoundlanders call themselves, are chary of immigrants, whom they call "come-from-aways" in their arcane seafaring dialect. Jobs are scarce enough for Newfoundlanders in Canada's poorest province, the islanders say.

On closer examination, however, Newfoundland's reputation on the refugee circuit as a "safe destination" is not as unlikely as it would seem. Its position as the first port of entry to the North American continent, as well as Canada's relatively open immigration policies and multi-ethnic character, attracts refugees.

But Newfoundland, with a population of only 570,000, has the highest unemployment rate in Canada and is showing signs of strain from the flood of refugees through what has become known as the "Gander connection," or "the Northern route." The province's social services have been stretched to the breaking point, and immigration authorities are so burdened with caseloads that they have accumulated a large backlog of refugee paperwork.

Last winter, with hotels in Gander and St. John's overflowing with hundreds of refugees from Bulgaria alone, social service authorities began taking the homeless to communities along a barren 100-mile stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Although around 1,500 refugees have left the province since the beginning of the year, 900 are still waiting to be processed, according to Philip Field, Newfoundland's director of immigration. Of those who have left, 88 have returned to their home countries -- 70 voluntarily and 18 deported, Field said.

Some of the refugees stranded here, like Hernandez Montes and her husband, are victims of what human-rights activists and some immigration lawyers say is a "naive" government policy of trying to determine which refugees qualify as "convention refugees." The label refers to United Nations guidelines that spell out a basis by which a refugee can claim fear of persecution at home on political or religious grounds.

The approximately 50 Cubans here have a particularly difficult time qualifying as official refugees, the human-rights activists say, because of a widely held perception -- encouraged by Canada's close diplomatic relations with Cuba -- of a benign form of socialist democracy presided over by President Fidel Castro.

"What it comes down to is that if someone says he was tortured in Chile and kept in a dungeon, he's admitted. If he's a victim of more subtle forms of persecution somewhere else, he has problems," said Jerry Vink, executive director of the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association.

Vink said most of the people who have defected in Gander are professionals and academics who were not imprisoned or tortured for political offenses in their countries, but who wanted to escape to North America. To do so, said Vink, they "quietly burrowed through the system of a repressive regime" in order to obtain tickets on Aeroflot or Cubana Airlines flights that stop over in Newfoundland.

"If a {immigration} board member asks straight out, 'Were you persecuted?,' what can they say? That's the problem we've got here. The {U.N.} convention is not broad enough to cover these people."

In the case of Quincosa Fernandez, the immigration board ruled that "the fear felt by the applicant, if any, results solely from his refusal to accommodate himself to a social and political rhythm that does not suit him."

However, Vink, Quincosa Fernandez and other Cuban defectors interviewed here express no doubt that they would be persecuted if they returned home, if only for having defected.

Jorge Valez, a petroleum engineer who defected in 1987 and was granted immigrant status, is trying to get his wife and son out of Cuba. He drew his finger across his throat when asked what would await him if he went home.

"I'd get eight years for an illegal exit by itself, and then they could charge me with treason and counterrevolutionary activities," said Valez. He said his wife already has been officially branded a "worm" by Cuban authorities and fired from her job at a seismic data center because she had applied for an exit visa to join her husband under a Canada-Cuba family reunification program.

Valez said his wife has been continually harassed by Cuban security police in an effort to get her to denounce him. He said she has been repeatedly brought in for lengthy interrogations and told that her husband has had extramarital affairs in Canada.

Because Canada is a world leader in accepting asylum seekers -- last year 81 percent of all cases decided were approved -- and because it rarely forcibly returns defectors to countries such as Cuba, refugees like Hernandez Montes and her husband are unlikely to be sent back.

If Hernandez Montes' and Quincosa Fernandez's final appeals are denied, their deportation orders will go into effect and they will have to leave Canada -- at least for a few hours.

When an appeal is denied, the government requires the claimant to fly to St. Pierre Island, a tiny French territory just off the south coast of Newfoundland, reenter the province and reapply for permanent residence. Similarly, those seeking asylum in central Canada are required to travel to crossing points along the U.S. border, get their passports stamped and return to start the admissions process again.

"We'll go to St. Pierre if we have to, but what will happen to us then? Will we have to sit here forever?" Hernandez Montes asked.

Immigration officials said the government, in an effort to stem the tide of defectors, has asked some foreign airlines with routes through Gander not to sell tickets to nationals of certain countries, but that plan has been less than successful.

When a Czechoslovak airline agreed to curtail sales of tickets to Bulgarians headed for Montreal, an official said, they started buying tickets on Aeroflot flights that refuel in Gander. When the Soviet airline agreed to cut back on giving seats to Bulgarians, they started booking on Cubana Airlines flights.