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February 08, 2006

Homeland Security Names Senior Refugee Advisor

But One Year After Major Government Report on Asylum, Reforms Have Still Not Been Made

NEW YORK – One year ago today, the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a comprehensive 500-page report that documented serious failings in U.S. treatment of refugees who seek asylum in the United States and recommended a series of specific policy reforms.

“We are deeply disappointed that one year after a bi-partisan government report sounded an alarm about US treatment of refugees seeking asylum, almost none of its critical policy recommendations have been implemented,” said Eleanor Acer, Director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program. “While these recommendations wind their way through the alphabet soup of agencies, bureaus and divisions that make up our immigration bureaucracy, refugees who have sought safe haven here have languished unnecessarily in prisons and immigration detention facilities – in conditions that the Commission concluded were inappropriate.”

One of the recommendations made by the Commission – and by Human Rights First more than two years ago – was that DHS create a senior refugee position to ensure the appropriate treatment of asylum seekers. Human Rights First welcomed Secretary Chertoff’s announcement in July 2005 that such a post would be created, and we urged him to appoint an experienced refugee protection expert for the position. Read Human Rights First’s letter to Secretary Chertoff here: /wp-content/uploads/pdf/chertoff_081905.pdf

DHS announced yesterday the appointment of Igor V. Timofeyev as the DHS Senior Advisor for Refugee and Asylum Policy. “Human Rights First welcomes the commitment to an enhanced focus on refugee protection in DHS that the creation of this position represents,” said Acer. “But, while we appreciate the distinguished legal experience Mr. Timofeyev brings to the job, as well as his personal history as a refugee, we are concerned that the decision to select a candidate who does not have significant refugee protection experience will make a very difficult job even harder.”

Mr. Timofeyev faces a range of challenges in bringing US refugee and asylum policy in line with the values and traditions of the nation. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom found that asylum seekers are detained in jail-like facilities that create a serious risk of psychological harm, that 32% of asylum seekers are jailed for 90 days or more, and that release rates vary widely across the country, with parole rates as low as 0.5 % in New Orleans, 8.4% in New York and 3.8% in New Jersey. The Commission also concluded that asylum seekers are at risk of improper return to their countries of persecution because of serious problems in the implementation of the expedited removal process, a process that has since been expanded.

Among the reforms recommended by the Commission are that DHS should:
  • Not detain asylum seekers in inappropriate prisons and jail-like facilities but instead, when they are detained, in “non-jail-like” facilities.
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  • Promulgate regulations to ensure the release on parole of asylum seekers who meet the relevant standards.
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  • Make essential improvements and implement quality control measures to ensure that asylum seekers are not turned away in error under the expedited removal process.

Human Rights First urges DHS to make these and other long over-due reforms to ensure the proper treatment of asylum seekers. We look forward to working with the new refugee policy advisor to ensure the implementation of these reforms, and urge DHS to give his office the necessary authority and resources to advance these important objectives.