As a newly-initiated intern in The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, I was unsure what to expect when I walked into my first official team meeting in May 2019. Despite this uncertainty, I quickly learned that me and my intern team’s responsibilities would not follow the traditional Devil Wears Prada-esque intern tropes of office coffee runs and administrative purgatory. Instead, much of our role would involve conducting research for UN shadow reports by delving into former and current asylum cases.
My team’s first major project of the summer involved writing a client-based report on the human rights situation in Burundi to submit to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi. After President Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term in April of 2015, a violation of Burundi’s constitutionally-mandated two-term limit, Burundians took to the streets in protest. Many were kidnapped, detained, or killed. One failed coup attempt and four years later, Burundians today continue to live in fear of speaking out, lest they meet a similar fate. And after Burundi’s government forced the UN to shut down its local office in 2019, fact-finding has proven increasingly difficult.
As an advocacy organization that also provides pro-bono legal representation to asylum seekers through its Refugee and Immigration Program, The Advocates for Human Rights routinely uses firsthand information from former and current clients in advocacy reports (examples of this can be found here, here, and here). Accounts from asylum seekers who have directly witnessed and survived human rights violations can help NGOs identify patterns of abuse, identify bad-faith actors, and ultimately push for accountability on the international stage.
Full disclosure: I had heard nothing of the situation in Burundi before joining The Advocates. So when my supervisors informed me and my fellow International Justice interns of our project, I began gathering information: reading articles, watching videos, and sifting through The Advocates’ asylum case files from Burundi. Asking individuals to recount their experiences and, in some cases, relive their trauma, requires sensitivity, awareness, and humility. My fellow International Justice interns and I spent a week drafting an interview protocol complete with questions and disclaimers. After much deliberation, the questions we ultimately decided on centered specific incidents and specific perpetrators in the aim of identifying the types of abuse and distinguishing state actors from non-state actors. In pushing for accountability through international human rights law, the difference between the two was significant.
Due to the nature of asylum law in the US, all asylum cases must have some aspects in common. Gaining asylum requires a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country, and requires that the persecution be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. The majority of the Burundians we interviewed experienced persecution on the nexus of political opinion, race, or social group.
Yet the practice of interviewing asylum seekers is not quite so formulaic.
The process began with raking through a database to find relevant case files–”relevant” included individuals who had fled from Burundi sometime around or after 2015, since the COI’s charge only concerned conditions in Burundi after the 2015 attempted coup. After identifying clients to contact, we first sent an introductory email explaining the charge of the COI and the request for an interview, and then we called. Many numbers had gone out of service, and just as many sent us straight to voicemail. We quickly learned the importance of persistence and of follow-up. Eventually, individuals began to pick up, and as we pitched our requests for interviews, we were met with a brave and resounding chorus of ‘yes’ from former Burundians.
Your confidentiality and safety are of utmost importance to us. The Commission of Inquiry has promised to do everything in its power to protect the victims and witnesses included in this report. Every telephone conversation began with the same reassurance. Even with individuals who had successfully sought asylum, the threat of retribution against family or friends in Burundi remained present. The disclaimer served as a reminder: the information being shared is a lived experience, and, in some cases, the danger is still real.
In total, we interviewed five individuals about the experiences of themselves and those around them. The stories shared were uniquely painful yet thematically similar. State repression. Friends and family members who had been kidnapped. Friends and family members who had been killed. Abuse by the police. Abuse by the pro-government militant youth group, the Imbonerakure. Rape and sexual assualt. Torture. Fear.
And an abiding air of resilience.
Flash forward to mid-July: as the end of my 10-week long International Justice internship with The Advocates for Human Rights approached, President Trump announced a federal policy eliminating nearly all asylum protections for Central Americans and other migrants seeking refuge in the United States at the US-Mexico border by introducing a safe-third-country agreement. This agreement requires that migrants must have already applied for asylum at the first country they entered on their route to the US before applying for asylum in the US. If asylum-seekers fail to do so, the government may deport them to this “first country” before allowing their asylum case to be processed in the US.
This policy raised the bar for entry from merely demonstrating a “credible fear” of persecution in the country of origin to a prohibitively high burden of proof aimed to severely reduce the number of asylum seekers accepted into the US. Therefore as more migrants apply for asylum, a greater percentage of cases are denied. Trump’s immigration policies also exist within the context of a heavily backlogged asylum queue where hundreds of thousands of cases dating back to 2010 remain in a processual limbo.
The result? A deeply unreliable process of asylum that violates domestic law and fails to meet international standards–a process that gambles with human lives. After spending a summer in proximity to asylum cases, I understood that, more often than not, asylum is not a choice. Asylum is a means to survive.
At the end of one call, following protocol, I asked a former client if she had any last questions for me. “I do have one,” said the woman, an asylum seeker who had survived and escaped sexual abuse by government forces,
“Is Burundi going to get better?”
For a moment, I struggled to find an adequate response. Yet if she still retained her capacity to hope, so could I. And with brave voices like hers cooperating with NGOs to speak out against human rights abuses, we have no choice but to believe in a better future.
By Tala Alfoqaha, a Mathematics & Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota. Tala was the 2019 Don Fraser Human Rights Fellow with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.