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January 15, 2002

Asylum News 10

New Human Rights First Report Outlines Barriers Facing Refugee Women who Seek Asylum in the U.S.

Difficulties Facing These Women and Other Refugees Will Likely Increase as Immigration Functions Are Transferred to Homeland Security Department Human Rights First just released a report documenting the harsh and unfair treatment under U.S. law and practice that refugee women face when they seek asylum here. The report, "Refugee Women at Risk," tells the stories of 13 women who fled forced marriage, rape, forced abortion, domestic violence, and other gender-related violence and sought protection in the U.S., only to be detained, deported summarily, or otherwise treated unfairly. “Because of unfair U.S. immigration laws, refugee women who seek asylum in the U.S. often face significant barriers in striving to win the protection they deserve,” said Eleanor Acer, Director of the Asylum Program at Human Rights First. “When a woman with a gender-based asylum claim is barred from asylum because of summary deportation procedures or an unrealistic filing deadline, or when a woman fleeing from domestic violence is detained, and forced to choose between a lengthy separation from her young child and abandoning her claim for refuge, something is very wrong with our laws and procedures.” The challenges that these women and other refugees face have only increased in the last year in the wake of government measures taken in the aftermath of September 11. Many of these measures have deprived non-citizens of due process. As a result, refugee women, already among the most vulnerable of the already-vulnerable refugee population, are at even greater risk of unfair detention, deportation or mistreatment. Among these new government measures are the expansion of INS detention authority, the gutting of the immigration appeals process, and the transfer of the INS's immigration functions to the Department of Homeland Security – a transfer that will occur in March 2003. Barriers to Asylum The United States has a long history of protecting refugees, yet the ability of refugees to gain asylum was undermined in 1996 by a new immigration law called the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.” Some of the barriers created by that law include:
  • A summary “expedited removal” process which gives INS inspectors at airports and borders – rather than trained immigration judges – the power to order the immediate deportation of a person who arrives in the U.S. without proper travel documents;
  • Mandatory detention” of asylum seekers who are subject to the expedited process; and
  • A filing deadline that bars most asylum claims not filed within one year of a refugee’s arrival.
One Woman’s Story The experience of Beatrice Okum, a Sudanese Christian refugee, illustrates the severe impact of these barriers on refugee women. At age 15, Beatrice was forced into slavery for 14 years after fleeing her home in Southern Sudan and being separated from her mother, brothers and sisters. When she finally was able to escape slavery, she came to the U.S. to seek asylum. Beatrice was handcuffed, shackled and brought to a detention facility where she was jailed for nearly five months. Beatrice recalls her time in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, “watching daily the hopelessness, the ache, the anguish on the faces of fellow inmates as they are filled with fear and uncertainty, because we are subjected to a system where hope often dies before it is realized.” Much of her time in detention invoked flashbacks to her experiences in slavery. “I am only fighting for freedom,” she said during her period of detention. “I only want to be safe.”