7-29-2011By Eleanor Acer
Director, Refugee Protection Program
The United States has granted protection to the Libyan woman who managed to make her way into a Tripoli hotel to tell international journalists that members of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces had gang-raped her, according to recent news reports. Her harrowing ordeal – which included a dramatic escape from Libya only to be deported back to Libya against her will – highlights the need for the United States and the international community to further develop effective emergency mechanisms to ensure that refugees who are at imminent risk of harm are quickly brought to safety.
On March 26, with the cameras rolling, Eman al-Obeidi told international journalists at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli that Gaddafi troops had detained her at a military checkpoint for two days, and during that time had raped and defecated on her. She showed them the scratches, blood, and bruises on her body. Government officials and hotel staff quickly silenced al-Obeidi by throwing a coat over her head and removing her from the hotel. She was reportedly released from Libyan government custody three days later after a medical examiner confirmed that she had been raped.
After her release, she continued to talk to the press and told journalists that she feared for her life. Al-Obeidi then fled Libya to neighboring Tunisia and from there crossed the border to Qatar.
But in June, the Qatari government deported her to Benghazi against her will. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) condemned this forced return as a violation of international law, noting that al-Obeidi had been recognized as a refugee by UNHCR.
Al-Obeidi was later evacuated from Libya by UNHCR staff and taken to an emergency transit facility in Romania. According to a news report, U.S. officials promised to prioritize any asylum application she might submit. Fifty-four days later, her request for protection had been approved by U.S. authorities, and she arrived in the United States, where she can live safely and without fear of being sent back to Libya.
Al-Obeidi’s ordeal makes clear the dire need for fast-track protection and resettlement processes for refugees who face imminent risks of harm. Pro-democracy activists, journalists, victims of religious persecution, human rights advocates, victims of persecution due to sexual orientation, and others who face well founded fears of persecution can sometimes find themselves at risk of imminent harm or deportation to persecution, even when they have already escaped from their home countries.
In a 2010 report, Human Rights First identified examples of Iraqis who faced imminent risks of harm and were in need of expedited protection and resettlement. In one case, the son of an Iraqi translator who worked for the U.S. military waited 21 months in Baghdad for his resettlement approval. During his wait, he was shot due to his father’s U.S. affiliation, and he received additional threats while waiting for his U.S. security check process to be completed. In another example, an Iraqi child fell ill and died while awaiting security processing and his young siblings and mother were jailed by Turkish authorities because they had overstayed their visas. Since the release of that report, we have gathered other examples as well. For example, an Iranian journalist who was tortured and fled Iran to avoid being jailed again continued to be threatened by Iranian authorities while waiting in a third country – for well over a year – for his resettlement request to be processed. In yet another case, a Ugandan advocate for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex) people who had been detained and beaten by Ugandan authorities continued to face beatings and persecution even after fleeing to Kenya.
While the United States has sometimes expedited urgent cases for U.S. resettlement, it does not yet have a formal transparent system for expediting the resettlement of cases of refugees who face imminent risks of harm – though it is actively working on developing such a process. And while U.S. authorities clearly worked hard to process al-Obeidi’s application within two months, other refugees who face imminent risks of harm can remain in highly dangerous circumstances for many months and sometimes years.
There is a lot that the U.S. government can do to improve the timeliness of its refugee processing and to create an effective system for expediting the cases of refugees who face imminent risks of harm. Some important steps include:
- Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue to work with other relevant federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances. This procedure should enable resettlement to take place within a set time period, and facilitate transfers of refugee cases to UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Centers when appropriate.
- Improve the timeliness of resettlement processing, including through properly resourcing and addressing unnecessary extended delays in the security clearance process. Effective and accurate background security checks are an essential component of any admissions program, and they are necessary to protect the American people as well as the refugee system itself. However, background check processes need to be adequately staffed, coordinated and prioritized in order to ensure they are conducted in a timely and effective manner – and senior government officials need to make sure this coordination and prioritization actually happens. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the inter-agency security clearance procedure – including by ensuring adequate staffing, coordination and prioritization – to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delays.
To review Human Rights First’s full report, Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement, click here.
To review the report’s summary and key findings, click here.