7-28-2011By Eleanor Acer
Director, Refugee Protection Program
Today is the 60th Anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention, drafted in the wake of World War II, prohibits the return of refugees to places where they have well-founded fears of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group membership.
The United States played a leading role in drafting the Convention. The late Lou Henkin, a long-time Member and former Chair of Human Rights First’s Board of Directors, was the U.S. representative to the convention-drafting conference. (And his guidance and wisdom is very much missed by those of us who were privileged to work with him over the years.) By acceding to the Convention’s Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States committed to abide by the Convention’s provisions, including its prohibition on returning refugees to persecution.
The United States has long played a leadership role in protecting refugees – victims of political and religious persecution and others who are persecuted essentially because of who they are or what they believe. And many Americans work to welcome and assist refugees in this country. See a photo exhibit honoring both refugees and the people in this country who work with them, which was developed by Human Rights First and other groups and displayed in the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
While this country has a long and strong history of bipartisan support for the persecuted, that support has faltered at times. (For an overview of U.S. leadership on refugee issues, read Human Rights First’s March 2010 recommendations for reform on the 30th Anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act.)
The United States has not always lived up to its principles. While the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by countries in the developing world, the United States continues to detain asylum seekers who manage to make it to U.S. borders or airports in search of refuge in prison-like conditions and without basic fairness safeguards. The Obama administration has implemented some reforms, but it has refused to provide detained asylum seekers with the basic safeguard of an immigration court custody hearing to determine if they are being unnecessarily detained. It also continues to hold the vast majority of detained asylum seekers and immigrants in prisons and prison-like facilities, where they are made to wear prison uniforms, prohibited from receiving contact visits from their families, afforded zero privacy in their housing units, and limited to just one hour of outdoor access each day.
In addition, the technical requirement for asylum seekers to file applications within one year of arrival has led to the denial or delay of thousands of requests for protection from genuine refugees in the United States, not to mention creating unnecessary inefficiencies in the asylum adjudication process.
The anniversary of the Refugee Convention this year presents an opportunity for the United States to renew its commitment to protecting those who face political, religious and other forms of persecution. In fact, there is much that the United States can do to reaffirm its commitment to the Refugee Convention, and to lead the international community by example. In particular, the United States should pledge to implement specific reforms this year to ensure U.S. compliance with its commitments under the Refugee Convention and Protocol and to reaffirm its global leadership in protecting refugees. These reforms, which have been detailed by Human Rights First in a set of ten recommendations, include:
1. Providing safeguards against unnecessary and inappropriate detention by revising regulations or passing legislation to provide arriving asylum seekers and other immigrants in detention with the chance to have their custody reviewed in a hearing before an Immigration Judge, and advancing other reforms necessary to move away from a penal model of detention. These reforms will help ensure U.S. compliance with Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.
2. Restoring access to asylum by eliminating the one-year filing deadline that bars refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum. This reform will help ensure U.S. compliance with Articles 33 and 34 of the Refugee Convention.
For those who want to help, there are so many ways. A good start would be to tell your government representatives and leaders that you care about refugees. That simple message can help ensure that this country’s leaders know that their constituents are committed to protecting refugees and to ensuring that this country lives up to its commitments under the Refugee Convention and its Protocol.
If you want to get more specific, you can send your representatives our list of steps the United States should take to renew its commitment to the Refugee Convention. You could also Take Action to tell Congress to support the Refugee Protection Act of 2011. The Refugee Protection Act of 2011 would correct some of the most egregious policies toward refugees and re-establish the United States’ commitment to protecting the persecuted. For more information on the Refugee Protection Act, click here.
The United States’ commitment to refugees and asylum seekers remains one of our nation’s proudest traditions. The U.S. government should honor that tradition by taking concrete steps to improve our asylum procedures at home and our refugee policies abroad.