12-5-2011By Annie Sovcik
Advocacy Counsel, Refugee Protection Program
U.S. should pledge improvements to asylum system, detention reform and expedited resettlement for at-risk refugees at this week’s Ministerial Meeting
This week, in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th Anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, representatives from countries around the world will gather for a Ministerial Meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in Geneva to reaffirm their countries’ commitment to the protection of refugees – individuals who are forced to flee their home countries due to political, religious, ethnic, or other forms of persecution – and offer pledges for ways in which their laws, policies, and practices can be improved to enhance the protection of refugees and other displaced or stateless persons.
The United States’ delegation will include officials from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend, though Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration David Robinson will serve as the official “Head of the U.S. Delegation.”
The protection of refugees is a global responsibility. And a global challenge. According to UNHCR, of the estimated 15.4 million refugees worldwide, 80% are hosted by other war-torn, conflict-ridden and/or developing countries. While the majority of refugees return home eventually, some integrate locally in regional or neighboring countries – others languish in refugee camps for much of their lives or attempt to survive as urban refugees, struggling alongside a local population which is often living at mere subsistence. Less than 1% are given the opportunity to restart their lives in a third country through resettlement, and less than 2% find their own way to “industrial” countries to seek asylum protection.
The United States hosts a relatively small percentage of the overall refugee population worldwide, but it has long been a leader in the protection of refugees. In the wake of World War II, recognizing the global nature of refugee protection, the United States was among the leaders to call for and draft the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as sign the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1980 the United States enshrined the international framework for the protection of refugees into domestic law through the Refugee Act of 1980.
The United States is the most generous individual state donor to UNHCR which – along with its network of implementing NGO partners – provides life-saving assistance, including shelter, food, and physical and legal protection to an estimated 25.2 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Additionally, through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the United States resettles 60,000 to 80,000 refugees per year and welcomes them with very basic transitional assistance into communities across the country. In 2010, the United States received second the largest number of individual applicants for asylum status – the equivalent of 5% of worldwide asylum filings. According to data from the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, the United States granted asylum to 21,113 refugees in Fiscal Year 2010.
Other countries often look to the United States for guidance in addressing refugee protection concerns – and to U.S. treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as an example, for better or worse. The United States has much to be proud of, yet significant gaps remain. Major flaws in U.S. laws, policies and legal interpretations undermining the institution of asylum include:
- the rapid escalation of immigration detention and the use of jails and jail-like facilities to detain asylum seekers;
- the failure to provide crucial due process safeguards to prevent detention from being arbitrary or unnecessary;
- a filing deadline and other barriers that have limited access to asylum for genuine refugees; and
- expansive “terrorism bars” to asylum and flawed legal interpretations that have prevented legitimate refugees from receiving asylum or other protection.
The U.S. resettlement system has also faced challenges, often failing to move swiftly, proactively, and robustly enough to protect the rights of refugees—including those at imminent risk. Two significant gaps and challenges include:
- the continued lack of a rapid and transparent emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger; and
- significant delays in resettlement processing due to inaccuracies or inefficiencies in the security clearance process, imposing further hardships on refugees who have already waited lengthy periods.
The United States can do better. As a global leader, the United States must treat refugees in accordance with the highest standards of dignity, due process, and adherence to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention and Protocol. The United States must lead by example and live up to the same standards we expect the rest of the world to respect.
Human Rights First has encouraged the United States to use the upcoming Ministerial Meeting as an opportunity to offer a set of policy pledges designed to close the gaps in U.S. asylum laws, policies, and legal interpretations and repair some of the significant challenges in the refugee resettlement system. Last month, in partnership with UNHCR and Georgetown Law, Human Rights First brought together experts from the government, NGOs, academic communities, and UNHCR, as well as asylees themselves, in a full-day evaluation of the U.S. asylum system and a discussion of pledges the United States should make to enhance its protection of refugees.
Human Rights First outlined several suggested pledges to the United States, including:
- move away from a penal model of detention;
- provide safeguards against unnecessary and inappropriate detention by revising regulations 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;
- eliminate the one-year filing deadline that bars refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum;
- protect refugees from inappropriate exclusion by revising the U.S. laws, policies, and legal positions that are excluding refugees from asylum protection under “terrorism” and other bars in ways that are inconsistent with U.S. commitments under the Refugee Convention and Protocol;
- establish a formal, effective, timely and transparent emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger in countries of first asylum; and
- implement improvements to the security clearance process for refugees and immigrants which ensure that each federal agency involved provides the necessary staffing to complete checks accurately and without unnecessary delays within a set time period.
With leadership comes responsibility, and the UNHCR Ministerial Meeting provides an excellent opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its commitment, through example, in promoting the protection of refugees around the world.