12-9-2011By Annie Sovcik
Advocacy Counsel, Refugee Protection Program
Tomorrow is Human Rights Day, a time to commemorate those around the world who defend and promote human rights. It’s also a time to honor those whose lives have been uprooted and sacrificed as a result of war, ethnic or sectarian conflict, oppressive regimes, failed states, genocide and other atrocities.
In the wake of World War II, the international community gathered in solidarity and vowed never to allow the atrocities of that conflict – events that left over 60 million dead and over 40 million displaced in Europe – to happen again. On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was born out of that vow and outlined a framework based on the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
Also born out of that vow was the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It established a framework for the protection of persons fleeing persecution because of their political or religious beliefs, or their race, ethnicity, or other fundamental aspects of their identity.
There have been great strides and advancements in the promotion of human rights and the protection of refugees around the world since the UDHR and Refugee Convention were adopted. Even so, I hardly have to leave my office to know first-hand that we – as a world and as the United States – still have a long way to go.
Through our Refugee Protection Program, Human Rights First, in partnership with volunteer attorneys, provides legal representation to individual refugees and helps them gain asylum protection in the United States. Each day, in our offices in New York and Washington, DC, our attorneys meet with survivors of political, religious, and other persecution from countries such as Burma, Eritrea, Rwanda, China, Colombia, Russia, Congo (DRC), Iraq, and Zimbabwe. Many have had family members killed in conflict or been separated from their parents or children due to violence or chaos. Most have been arrested, jailed, beaten, raped, tortured, or threatened with death. Though the details of their life stories and experiences vary greatly, all are seeking protection in the United States because they fear persecution if deported back to their home countries.
Our refugee clients remind us every day that the ideals set out in the UDHR and the Refugee Convention are as important in 2011 as they were in 1948 and 1951. Their courage, perseverance, and strength challenge us – as a U.S.-based human rights organization – to continue to push the U.S. government to be a noble leader in the struggle for ensuring that the “inherent dignity” of all human beings around the world is both protected and respected.
To be a noble leader, the United States must practice at home what it preaches abroad. As our refugee clients teach us about the human rights struggles they faced abroad, their experiences navigating the U.S. asylum system illustrate how flawed laws, policies, and legal interpretations undermine the asylum system in the United States and make it extraordinarily difficult for genuine refugees to be granted protection.
We see first-hand how the rapid escalation of immigration detention and the use of jails and jail-like facilities to detain asylum seekers have created a barrier to accessing a fair asylum process and why the United States needs to move away from its use of a penal model of detention, expand its use of alternatives to detention, and provide due process safeguards to protect asylum seekers from unnecessary and inappropriate detention. We see the direct impact of how a filing deadline has limited access to asylum for refugees and why Congress needs to eliminate it so that asylum cases can be adjudicated more efficiently and on their merits. Finally, we see how expansive “terrorism” bars to asylum and flawed legal interpretations have prevented refugees from receiving asylum or other protection and why these laws and legal positions need to be revised. (See link for background and detailed recommendations from Human Rights First on how repair these problems).
Tomorrow, as we commemorate Human Rights Day, let us remember the fundamental principles set out in the UDHR and the Refugee Convention and recognize the ways in which struggle for human rights continues around the world and – even for Americans – in our backyard.