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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Guatemala Massacre Survivors Reunited After 30 Years

    In 1982, during the Guatemala civil war, a squad of soldiers led by Lt. Oscar Ramírez Ramos attacked the town of Dos Erres.* They killed over 250 people, mostly women and children. *
    Lt. Ramírez Ramos spared a 3-year-old boy named Oscar, and brought the child home to live with him (the phenomena of persecutors adopting the children of their victims is not as uncommon as you might think-the New Yorker recently had an interesting article about how this played out during Argentina's Dirty War).* After*Lt. Ramírez Ramos died in an accident, his family continued to raise Oscar as their own.* The family never told him about his past, and he grew up idolizing his "father," the man who killed his mother and eight siblings.

    Tranquilino Castañeda reunited with his son and grandchildren.

    Oscar's real father, Tranquilino Castañeda, was away from home during the attack, and for 30 years, he mourned the death of his wife and children, including Oscar.* But last year, an investigation by Guatemalan prosecutors revealed that one son-Oscar-had survived.* A DNA test last August confirmed that the two men were father and son, and they were reunited via Skype.
    Oscar had come to the United States in 1998, and has been living here illegally since that time.* After they learned about each other, Oscar's father came to the U.S., and the pair reunited after 30 years apart:
    "Yesterday I had the chance to see him in person. It is quite different from seeing him on the computer or on pictures," Tranquilino said. The Guatemalan farmer has green eyes and the leathery skin of someone who has worked in the fields all his life. He is a man of few words.* Tranquilino and Oscar, who is 33, met for the first time at a New Jersey airport, just a few hours after Castaneda landed there from Guatemala. [Oscar], his son, traveled to New Jersey from Framingham, Mass., a blue-collar suburb of Boston where he lives with his wife and four children.
    After he learned the truth about his family, Oscar decided to seek asylum in the U.S. based on his fear that he would be a target in Guatemala.* "The military retains great power in his native land and most atrocities from the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, have gone unpunished."* He has a pro bono attorney, R. Scott Greathead, and his asylum interview is set for June 21, 2012.*
    Given that his case is so high profile, he probably has a good chance for success.* But one issue will be that his father has been living in Guatemala for all these years and has testified against the soldiers responsible for the Dos Erres massacre (one of the soldiers was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison).* If the father lives in Guatemala in relative safety, it may be difficult for Oscar to demonstrate that he will face harm.
    It seems to me that another basis for him to remain in the U.S. is humanitarian asylum (I imagine he is also eligible for Cancellation of Removal if his case ends up before an Immigration Judge).* Under humanitarian asylum, Oscar could remain in the United States if he demonstrates "compelling reasons for being unwilling or unable to return to the country arising out of the severity of the past persecution."* It may be a bit novel, but the facts of the case-his family's massacre, his abduction by the man (at least partly) responsible for their deaths, and growing up with that man's family-may constitute compelling reasons why Oscar cannot return to Guatemala.*
    With humanitarian asylum, even if it is now safe for Oscar to return to Guatemala, he can obtain asylum based on the severity of the persecution he previously suffered.* What is interesting here is that Oscar did not know until recently that he had been persecuted.* Generally, asylum seekers are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and here-where the harm was so severe-humanitarian asylum seems appropriate.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. Remembering Algeria’s Jewish Refugees – 50 Years Later

    This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accord, the agreement recognizing Algeria's independence from France.* Since Roman times, Algeria was home to a large Jewish community.* During the French colonial period, Jews were granted French citizenship.* After independence, however, Algeria denied citizenship to its Jewish population and most of the country's 140,000 Jews left for France. By 2004, there were less than 100 Jews remaining in Algeria, and most of those fled during the civil war (1991-2002) when the Armed Islamic Group threatened to exterminate them.

    Ghardaia

    I had an opportunity to visit Algeria in 2001.* I traveled with an Ibadite Muslim friend who is from the M'Zab Valley, an oasis in the Sahara, about 500 km south of Algiers.* The principal city of the M'Zab Valley is Ghardaia, which a French philosopher described as a "Cubist painting beautifully constructed" (maybe I am a bit more pedantic, but to me it looks like the video game Q*bert).* There, I visited an old abandoned synagogue and the Jewish graveyard.* As we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accord, I thought I would share some photos and facts about the Jewish community of Ghardaia.
    As best as we know, Jews arrived in Ghardaia in two waves.* The city's original Jews arrived in the 13th or 14th century, a few hundred years after the town was founded.* The Jews were invited to the M'Zab to work as jewelers and smiths, professions traditionally avoided by the local Muslims.* Legend tells of four families who came to the desert town from Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia.* The Jews of Djerba trace their lineage back to Biblical times.
    The second group arrived in the late 15th century.* At the time, an extremist Muslim movement (possibly fueled by the failure of Islam in Spain) attacked and expelled Jewish communities in Morocco.* Some Jews fled to Ghardaia.* They joined the existing community, and over time, the two groups merged together.

    Abandoned Synagogue in Ghardaia

    The Jews of Ghardaia lived in relative harmony with their neighbors until the mid-20th century.* By then, Algeria was controlled by France, and the population of Ghardaia was divided between Ibadite Muslims (who originally settled the M'Zab Valley), Jews, and Sunni Muslims.* When the war of independence began in 1954, the situation for the Jews of Algeria deteriorated, and by June 1962, all the Jews of Ghardaia had been forced to seek refuge abroad.
    Just as this 800-year chapter of Jewish history was drawing to a close, two French anthropologists arrived on the scene, hoping to study genetic traits of the Jewish people there.* Instead, they documented the final years and days of Ghardaia's Jews.* The anthropologists, Lloyd Cabot Briggs and Norina Lami Guede, wrote up their observations in an amazing (and obscure) paper called "No More Forever: A Saharan Jewish Town."* The paper begins: "This book is the record of a people who are gone."* Recalling their own departure, through newly established rebel checkpoints in the now independent Algeria, Briggs and Guede write:
    The notebooks and pictures that we carried with us were the only coherent record that remained of a curiously distinctive way of life which had gone on for centuries and came suddenly to an end, leaving behind it only empty houses and an abandoned cemetery in the desert.

    The same synagogue, circa 1958

    It so happened that I was visiting Algeria during Passover, and so I was particularly keen to find other Jews, or at least visit Jewish sites.* With the help of several friends, I was able to visit the old synagogue of Ghardaia and the Jewish graveyard.
    The synagogue had been empty for almost 40 years when I visited, and it was in bad shape.* A man lived there, and he allowed us to visit for a few minutes.* I took some pictures, which you can see here, and I said a prayer.* It was quite moving to pray in that abandoned temple, where (I assume) no Jew had prayed for almost 40 years.
    The synagogue was a typical Sephardic design, with blue and white walls, and numerous thick columns.* A wooden bimah (stage) would have formed the center piece of the room, but it was gone.* Parts of the domed roof had collapsed, covering the floor with piles of stone and mortar.* The ceiling above the women's section had fallen in, filling the balcony with rubble.* A few chains hung from the ceiling.* At one time they held lamps with an eternal flame, long since extinguished.* Two Stars of David were all that remained to confirm that we were in a synagogue.

    Another view of the synagogue.

    After visiting the synagogue, we walked to the Jewish cemetery, which is a mile or two outside the town.* It's difficult to get a sense for the size of the graveyard, as it blends perfectly with the rocky surroundings.* It was here, in 1962, that the last Jews of Ghardaia buried their old prayer books, before departing their oasis homes forever (in Jewish tradition, books containing the name of G-d are buried, not thrown away).* The oldest dated grave is from 1749 (5509 in the Jewish calendar), but some graves are probably centuries older.* Members of the community used to come to a small grotto here to light candles and pray for assistance from their ancestors.* Women who reached menopause came here to pray for one more male child.* I also said a prayer at the graveyard and I placed stones on some of the graves (it is a Jewish tradition to place stones on the graves).

    The Jewish cemetery near Ghardaia

    The last Jews of Ghardaia left Algeria in 1962.* They fled to France and most of them are still there.* All in all, over 800,000 Middle Eastern Jews were forced to flee their homes between 1948 (the founding of the state of Israel) and the 1970?s.* Like the Jews of Ghardaia, they came from communities that had existed for centuries (and in some cases millennium).* Also like the Jews of* Ghardaia, they lost most of their property and were lucky to escape with their lives.* Having seen a bit of this history makes me lament the loss of these ancient and diverse communities, but it also reminds me of the importance of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution.
    For more information about the Jews of Ghardaia, take a look at Jews of the Sahara by Ronald L. Nagel.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. Some (Unsolicited) Advice for the Anti-Refugee Crowd

    It's easy to find anti-immigration websites and blogs on the internet, but there really aren't many websites devoted exclusively to opposing refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S.* Of course, many of the anti-immigration websites periodically discuss these issues, but this is not the same as a restrictionist website focusing on asylum.
    The only blog I've found that is devoted exclusively to these issues is Refugee Resettlement Watch, which (as the name implies) was founded to highlight problems in the U.S. refugee resettlement program.* RRW advocates for fewer refugees and better oversight of the resettlement program.* It also opposes bringing in "Muslim refugees, Somalis in particular, who have no intention of becoming Americans."* The blog authors add a note for those who might think the website racist:
    Some of you reading this have for way too long intimidated and silenced*people you disagree with by calling them racists, xenophobes, hatemongers and on and on and on.* It doesn't work here, in fact, when you start with that sort of attack and don't address the issues we raise, it validates our work.
    The bloggers for RRW are very active, and post several articles each day.* They also attract a fair bit of attention-according to their website statistics, the site has received almost 1.2 million hits.
    Although I obviously disagree with the main goal of RRW, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with advocating for the reduction or elimination of our refugee and/or asylum programs.* Indeed, I can think of a number of legitimate arguments supporting such a move: Our money would be more effectively spent helping refugees overseas; these programs are too costly given our current economic woes; refugees integrate too slowly-or not at all-into our communities; we should only help refugees who are "culturally compatible" with our society.* I won't address these arguments here.* Instead, I want to talk about RRW (in other words, it's time for the unsolicited advice).

    "Why are people always dis-ing Ishtar?"

    First, RRW would be more effective if it was less partisan.* The blog is not even close to neutral in its approach; it reports almost exclusively negative news about refugees.* If a refugee jaywalks in Cincinnati, RRW will cover it.* But if a refugee saves 10 children from a burning school bus, you won't hear about it on RRW.* Perhaps the point is to destroy the myth of refugees as innocent victims and replace it with a more sinister image.* While this type of advocacy might do well with the already converted, it is unlikely to change many people's minds.* So my advice to RRW is, try to be a bit more subtle.* If you want to convince me that Dustin Hoffman is a crummy actor, you can't only talk to me about Ishtar.* You have to address The Graduate and (G-d forbid) Meet the Fockers.* My point being, unless RRW acknowledges in a meaningful way the positive aspects of the refugee and asylum programs, it will not have much legitimacy to address the negative aspects.
    Second, while I am willing to* accept RRW's claim that it is not racist or xenophobic, it certainly provides a safe space for racists, xenophobes, and hatemongers.* A quick purview of the comments (and RRW's responses) demonstrates this pretty clearly.* Even the Center for Immigration Studies-a well known restrictionist group that has itself been (unjustly in my opinion) called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center-keeps a safe distance from RRW.* So my advice is, don't allow hateful and racist comments to go unchallenged.* When you actually demonstrate that you oppose racism and xenophobia, instead of just saying it on your "about us" page, people will take you more seriously.
    Finally, many of the articles on RRW take a contemptuous tone towards refugees and advocates for refugees.* While these repeated-and often nasty-comments might be viscerally appealing to people who oppose (or hate) refugees, they are a big turn off to the unconverted.* My advice: Have a sense of humor and give people the benefit of the doubt, at least once in a while.* Everyone who advocates for refugees is not a self-serving, crypto-jihadist, and many refugees are simply ordinary people fleeing terrible circumstances.* A more respectful tone towards such people might actually win you some converts.
    Of course, I don't expect RRW to listen to my advice (does anyone listen to advice these days anyway?). Perhaps they are satisfied speaking to a like-minded audience and avoiding honest debate with their political opponents.* To engage in a real discussion with people who have different views requires listening, humility, patience, and courage.* I know from personal experience that it is not always easy to engage in such discussions.* But that is how we learn and grow, and it is how we get closer to the truth.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  4. Iconic Afghan Asylee Adopts to Life in the U.S.

    Aesha Mohammadzai, the Afghan woman who was featured on the cover of Time magazine after relatives cut off her nose and ears, appears in a new CNN on-line piece called Saving Aesha.

    Aesha Mohammadzai: The face that launched a thousands quips.

    When she was 12 years old, Aesha's father promised her to a Taliban fighter in order to satisfy an obligation.* Not surprisingly, the marriage was abusive and when she was 18, Aesha fled.* She was captured and returned to her husband's family.* As punishment for attempting to escape, her husband's family cut off her nose and ears, and left her to die.* Aid workers and the U.S. military rescued her, and she was brought to a shelter run by Women for Afghan Women.*
    Although generally protective of Aesha's privacy, WAW ultimately brought her case to the attention of Time magazine.* As CNN reports:
    The organization's decision to allow Time to photograph Aesha in 2010 was calculated and deliberate. The group wanted to influence the conversation about U.S. troop withdrawals, and Aesha was its best chance. She became the poster child for the 15 million Afghan women and girls it fears will be brought to their knees, again, if troops leave too soon and the Taliban regain control.
    Possibly due to the publicity surrounding her case, she was able to come to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery.* But Aesha did not adjust well to the United States.* She was still suffering from severe mental and emotional trauma, and her reconstructive surgery had to be postponed due to her fragile emotional state.* Women for Afghan Women took over her care and provide her with housing and volunteer tutors.*
    Perhaps due to her emotional condition, it seems Aesha was a difficult charge.* She constantly threw fits, and one roommate after another fled her apartment.* At one point, she was hospitalized for 10 days.* After that incident, her medications were changed and she started doing better.
    CNN reports that in late 2010, Aesha's father-in-law was arrested for his role in her mutilation:
    Authorities said he held Aesha at gunpoint and ordered five other men -- including her husband -- to cut her. The father-in-law was released last July, however, reportedly because he didn't do the cutting himself and because Aesha is no longer around to pursue the case.
    Aesha received asylum in the United States in November 2011.* Although I was unable to find information about the basis for her asylum, there are a number of possible grounds: The claim could have been based on her particular social group-one formulation for this claim might be women who fear persecution in Afghanistan based on resistance to forced marriage.* Also, she might have framed the claim in terms of religious persecution-her family members harmed her because she would not comply with their version of Islam.* In addition, since she claims her husband in the forced marriage was a Taliban, she might have a fear of persecution based on imputed political opinion after her case became public and she moved to the U.S.* Obviously, the government of Afghanistan is unable and unwilling to protect her.*
    Aesha's case illustrates several important points.* First, refugees are often very damaged people.* Aesha is much worse off than most refugees, but people who flee persecution, who have been injured, who have lost loved ones, and who have lost their homes and property often have mental health issues.* Such people may be difficult to deal with, and those who assist refugees must be patient and understanding.* For me, at least, it is not always easy to be patient with difficult clients, especially when I am under pressure from several cases at once.* I imagine this is true for many people assisting refugees.
    A second point involves media coverage.* According to CNN, Women for Afghan Women made a decision to publicize Aesha's case in order to influence the debate about American troops in Afghanistan.* Given Aesha's fragile condition, it is unclear whether she had the capacity to understand the effect of going public, even if she did give consent (which is not clear from the CNN article).* Lawyers and their clients sometimes have diverging interests, particularly when there is an opportunity for publicity.* Most lawyer want publicity, but most clients prefer anonymity.* I doubt that WAW had a fiduciary duty to Aesha when they publicized the case, but they certainly had a moral responsibility.* If the CNN article is accurate, it raises serious issues about WAW's decision to publicize Aesha's case.*
    A final point raised by Aesha's case is that women are often ill-served by our asylum law.* Many female asylum seekers fear persecution based on forced marriage, FGM, domestic violence, and the like.* But these issues do not fit neatly into the protected categories for asylum (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and particular social group).* Fortunately, enterprising lawyers (and judges) have broadened the basis for asylum to protect women from some of these harms.* Wouldn't it be nice, though, if the Refugee Convention specifically recognized these types of harms?
    Aesha's case illustrates how complicated and difficult it can be to assist a refugee and help her rebuild her life.* In this process, asylum is often only a first step.*
    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  5. India Needs an Asylum Policy

    India is one of the few remaining countries that has not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol (the U.S. is a party to the Protocol, but not the Convention).* This means that India has no regular procedure for granting asylum to people fleeing persecution.* Nevertheless, according to UNHCR:
    [The] country hosts a large number of refugees and respects the principle of non-refoulement for holders of UNHCR documentation.* India continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from neighbouring States, protecting and assisting some 200,000 Tibetans and Sri Lankans. In the absence of a national legal framework for asylum, UNHCR registers asylum-seekers and conducts refugee status determination (RSD) in New Delhi, mostly for arrivals from Afghanistan and Myanmar.
    While this arrangement protects certain people seeking asylum, others who need assistance cannot get it, or are left to languish in refugee camps.*

    Even Bollywood endorses helping refugees (at least the good looking ones).

    In a recent editorial, writer Harini Calamur eloquently explains why India needs an asylum policy.* Ms. Calamur relates the story of Rinkle Kumari, a 19-year-old Hindu girl living in Pakistan.* Earlier this year, a group of Muslim men broke into Rinkle's home, kidnapped her, and forced her to convert to Islam and marry her neighbor.* The group of men was connected with a local Pakistani politician and the government failed to intervene.* After the case gained national attention, the Supreme Court of Pakistan sent Rinkle to a shelter where she could decide whether to remain with her husband or return to her parents.* She decided to remain with her husband.* Most observers believe that her decision was based on coercion-she feared that her family would be harmed if she returned home.
    Ms. Calamur asks what would happen if Rinkle escaped from Pakistan and sought asylum in India.* Given the absence of an asylum system, Ms. Calamur writes that in the best case, Rinkle would end up in a refugee camp:
    Refugees live in camps and have neither the right to free movement within India nor are they entitled to work. Most are in a state of suspended animation and have their lives at standstill. If Rinkle and her family escaped to India this is what they would face, and there is something terribly wrong and unjust about that.
    Ms. Calamur makes the case for India to adopt an asylum system:
    To be considered a world power, you don't just need a nuclear arsenal and growing prosperity. There needs also to be a measure of compassion, sharing and providing of refuge. India needs to start by offering asylum and citizenship to the persecuted minorities in its neighbourhood. There will be those who misuse this open policy, as they have in other countries. But the needs of the persecuted, the fate of one Rinkle, far outweighs the misuse of an asylum policy.
    Well said, Ms. Calamur.* I hope those in the West who question the need for an asylum system hear your words.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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