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Asylum Seekers Continue to Push for Change Abroad

Protesters carry a Burundian flag in Brujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

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.

Burundi: The Human Rights Crisis You May Not Have Heard Of

Protesters carry a Burundi flag during a protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura
Demonstrators carry a Burundian flag during a protest in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As an International Justice Program intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I have encountered many examples of human rights abuses throughout the world. Yet, while the recent drama of domestic politics continues to dominate the attention of American citizens, these international human rights violations go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. The ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi presents one such example as members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party.

April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed hundreds of lives. Violence flared following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term and subsequent, political protests. Police and security forces responded by exercising excessive force and shooting demonstrators indiscriminately.

After a failed coup d’état by military officers in May 2015, the Government intensified its repression of political dissent by suspending most of the country’s independent radio stations. In addition, journalists and human rights defenders face violence and increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression and association. Recently adopted legislation further limits the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate and for civil society to participate in public life. By mid-2015, most of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats.

The human rights crisis that gripped Burundi in 2015 deepened in 2016 as government forces targeted perceived political opponents with increased brutality. The Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) and the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR)—often in collaboration with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as Imbonerakure—committed numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests against the perceived opponents of the ruling party.

For perpetrators of these crimes associated with the ruling party, there is almost total impunity. The ruling party continues to interfere with Burundi’s weak justice system and therefore these human rights abuses are rarely punished. The government’s suspected political opponents have been arrested and held for prolonged periods unlawfully. Ultimately, an average of more than one thousand people fleeing the violence escaped to nearby Tanzania per day in 2016 to join the 250,000 already spread across Eastern Africa.

The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program provides legal representation to individuals seeking asylum.  The Advocates has received direct information about suppression of political opinion in Burundi from survivors fleeing human rights abuses in the country to seek asylum in the United States. Our clients share stories of being accused, often arbitrarily, of supporting anti-government protests. They report police and Imbonerakure members searching their homes, looting their businesses, and arresting, beating and interrogating them and their family members. While each client’s case is different, their experiences confirm that the legal system and policies in Burundi are failing to provide individuals with adequate protection from politically-based violence.

In July, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder’s report to the Universal Periodic Review, identifying specific measures that the Burundian Government should enact to address political suppression in the country.

First, Burundi should combat impunity by systematically and promptly carrying out investigations of criminal activity committed by government affiliates and ensure appropriate compensation for such crimes. In the previous UPR, the Government of Burundi accepted recommendations to continue efforts toward combatting impunity including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the Commission was established in 2016, serious concerns exist regarding the Commission’s ability to fulfill its mandate with the expanded use of temporary immunities which have de facto become permanent amnesty schemes. Burundi should then establish an independent mechanism for investigating complaints of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of members of police or security forces to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.

Second, the Government should take the necessary steps to ensure that legal systems and policies are in full compliance with Burundi’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. During its last UPR, Burundi rejected 15 recommendations related to freedom of expression and association, as well as protections for human rights defenders. Burundi must afford journalists and human rights defenders the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution or intimidation.

Overall, Burundi is failing to meet its international obligations to investigate and prosecute political-based violence perpetrated on behalf of the ruling party. Security forces, intelligence services, and Imbonerakure members are repeatedly identified as responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The Burundian Government must act to combat impunity and protect civil society members from such human rights violations.

With the ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi, members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party. Unfortunately, these human rights violations continue to go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. Although American domestic politics seem to dominate the current political discourse, we all need to remain vigilant and afford these international, human rights violations the attention they deserve.

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.  

 The Advocates’ stakeholder submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review includes direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full report here.

Related post:  Giving our asylum clients from Burundi a voice at the United Nations

The U.S. runs with a devil

The U.S. runs with a devil

You may never have heard of the Oromo people, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia. You might be surprised to learn that if you are a U.S. taxpayer, you are subsidizing their oppression.

On Tuesday, April 19, a Congressional commission named the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission conducted a hearing on human rights conditions in Ethiopia. The Commission provides information concerning human rights to Congress, so it is particularly fitting that it should inquire into conditions in Ethiopia. That country has been a major ally of the United States and recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid for all of the years Ethiopia’s current regime has been in power. Since 2013, the United States has given in the range of half a billion dollars per year in foreign aid to Ethiopia, plus a much smaller amount of military aid, which means the United States is Ethiopia’s largest and most important source of foreign assistance.

In July 2015, President Obama visited Ethiopia, drawing widespread criticism from human rights groups for his warm words toward the country and his relatively milquetoast references to its abysmal human rights record. Obama said that the Prime Minister of what he referred to as the “democratically elected” Ethiopian government “would be the first to acknowledge that there is more work to be done” in the field of human rights.

Well, yes. The ruling party in Ethiopia won all 547 seats in Parliament following the elections that occurred just two months before Obama’s visit, and the “democratically elected” Prime Minister was allocated 100 percent of the vote. U.S. officials were prohibited from acting as election observers. The election featured denials of registrations for opposition candidates, while journalists were arrested and threatened. After the election, at least three opposition politicians were murdered, with no investigations conducted.

The government’s security forces employ murder and torture. In 2014, they fired into crowds of peaceful students who were protesting the government’s “land grab” for the benefit of international development interests, which would potentially displace an estimated two million Oromo. Dozens were killed. Many more were arrested and remain in prison. The killings continue. According to Human Rights Watch, relying on reports of activists, at least 75 protesters were killed by government security forces in November and December 2015, while the government only acknowledged five deaths. The actual figures are likely much greater than is known, since the government tightly restricts access to such information. There is no freedom of the press, no independent judiciary, no adherence to international human rights standards beyond lip service.

The Ethiopian government is adept at achieving the maximum oppression while drawing minimal attention to its human rights abuses. It signs onto numerous international human rights conventions, although it routinely violates them. It purports to allow local human rights organizations to exist, although its Charities and Societies Proclamation makes it largely impossible for them to operate by denying the organizations international funding.

Perhaps most impressive, the government masterfully plays the terrorism card. In 2009, it adopted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, allowing draconian treatment of persons accused of being “terrorists,” largely an arbitrary term for those opposing actions of the Ethiopian government and wishing to bring about change. The government frequently brands protesting Oromo and others as “terrorists” to justify imprisoning or killing them.

The Tom Lantos Commission should disseminate to Congress all possible documentation of the crimes of the Ethiopian government. In turn, Congress should find ways to be sure the United States ratchets up the pressure on its strategic ally far beyond clubby acknowledgements of “more work to be done.” The spigot of international development money should not remain open without real and fundamental changes in the human rights environment in Ethiopia, beginning with an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings; a release of political prisoners; restoration of a free press and independent judiciary; and the repeal or modification of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Law.

By: James O’Neal, retired attorney and member of The Advocates for Human Rights’ board of directors, and Robin Phillips, the organization’s executive director. Deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations in Ethiopia, The Advocates has consistently raised concerns about the treatment of Oromos in Ethiopia at UN human rights bodies and with the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights.

Pictured above: Amaanee Badhasso, International Oromo Youth Association’s president in 2014, accompanied The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist to Geneva that year to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Read other blog posts about Ethiopia’s persecution of the Oromo by entering “Ethiopia” or “Oromo” in the blog’s search bar.

One step forward, two steps back characterizes the “protection” of women in Ethiopia

Mekdes Fisseha Libasie

Sixteen-year-old Hanna Lalango was kidnapped as she was returning home from school on October 1, 2014. Her kidnappers gang raped her for several days before throwing her out on a street where, later, she was found unconscious. Hanna’s parents sought the best medical care they could afford to save her life. Unfortunately, she passed away on November 1, 2014. The Federal High Court of Ethiopia sentenced each of the suspects 17 years to life imprisonment.

In another case, Bemnet Geremew, a 28-year old lawyer from Addis Ababa, was strangled and beaten to death by her husband on the night of June 27, 2015. The two had been married for only two months. A few days after committing the crime, the husband handed in himself to the police. The case is still in the courts.

These two are among many high profile cases of violence against women that have prompted a social media outcry and significant activism. Unfortunately, the majority of violence against women crimes are either unreported to the police or receive insufficient attention from police or courts.

Violence against women is widespread in Ethiopia. A World Health Organization study found that almost 71 percent of Ethiopian women reported being subjected to physical/sexual violence by their intimate partners.[1]

A decade ago, Ethiopia underwent extensive legal reform in an attempt to harmonize its laws with its constitution. Accordingly, the 2005 Criminal Code of Ethiopia defines and carries stringent punishment for acts of violence against women. Book Five, Title I, Chapter 2 of this code includes list of punishable acts of violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation and trafficking women. The revised federal and regional family laws have also brought provisions that better protect the rights of women in marriage.

Ethiopia has also ratified numerous international and regional conventions that proscribe acts and practices of violence against women, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is a signatory to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The country has subscribed to a multitude of relevant international and regional consensus documents.

Despite these efforts in legal reform, acts of violence against women seem to be on the rise in Ethiopia. Proliferation of electronic or social media has helped expose some of these crimes that would otherwise be unreported. Every year thousands of young women are trafficked and subjected to labor and sexual exploitation. There is almost a total lack of state accountability when these crimes are committed. For instance, in September 2015 a 20-year-old university student was shot in cold blood and killed by an armed member of the federal police for simply failing to greet him as she walked by. No official apology was offered to her families and the public. The progress of the case is not yet announced.

The momentum of advocacy for legal reform and implementation that was being initiated and carried out by civil society organizations and the non-profit sector a decade ago has stagnated in recent years. Since the year 2010, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of non-governmental organizations working directly on women’s human rights. This phenomenon is primarily due to the civil society law that was issued in 2009 requiring all non-profit organizations to re-register as new organizations. Accordingly, charities and organizations are classified as under Ethiopian, Ethiopian-resident, and foreign. Ethiopian charities are those which source only up to 10 percent of their funds from foreign sources. In accordance to the proclamation, only these Ethiopian charities can engage in activities relating to “the advancement of human and democratic rights” and “the promotion of equality of …gender and religion.” Many organizations primarily funded by foreign sources failed to re-register foreseeing that they would not be able to bear financial burdens by using local sources. Those which have continued their human rights work are severely incapacitated as a result of financial constraints. It is extremely difficult to generate funds locally to fulfill the goals of these organizations. This law has also prevented the creation of potential human rights organizations that would work to protect women’s human rights. “One step ahead two steps back” can describe the momentum of women’s human rights in Ethiopia.

Regarding rights relating to violence against women, a state has duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. In this context, the Ethiopian state not only needs to respect and protect women’s rights, but it should also fulfill these rights. It also has an additional layer of obligation to create conducive atmosphere for local and international co-operation in the implementation of rights.

The causes of violence against women in Ethiopia emanate from deep-rooted discriminatory culture against women. It requires multi-sectoral efforts such as education, advocacy, and appropriate law enforcement. The state cannot do all these by itself. Therefore, it must amend restrictive laws, such as civil society law, to engage other actors to promote and protect women’s human rights. In lieu of that, the state tampers with the rights of women to be protected from acts and practices of violence.

[1] See WHO publication http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/ accessed on 11 November 2015

By: Attorney Mekdes Fisseha Libasie is an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program. She has taught and practiced law in Ethiopia. Mekdes obtained her law degree from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She also has LL.M degree in Public International Law from University of Oslo, Norway. Currently, she is finalizing a research degree at the University of Surrey, UK.

Trick or Treat? The True Cost of Chocolate

child labor

Daniel Rosenthal/laif/Redux Image source

image

While my son is getting ready to head out tonight to harvest Halloween candy, excited by the chance to lug a pillowcase full of chocolate bars around the neighborhood,I’ve been thinking about the children who harvest the cocoa that goes into the chocolate in his bag.

Because while he finds an evening of hauling candy a treat, I know that for the millions of kids his age working in the cocoa industry it’s anything but fun.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 2 million children are performing hazardous work in the cocoa industry in the West African countries of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which account for about 58% of the world’s cocoa production.

The cocoa industry in these countries relies heavily on work performed by children, some as young as 5 years old, including WFCL (shorthand for the “worst forms of child labor” as defined by international law).

The work is dangerous, and it’s especially hard on children’s bodies.

“Working on cocoa farms can be hazardous, particularly for children, whose physical, mental, and psychological capacities are still developing. Children working in cocoa may work long hours, carry heavy loads, and use dangerous tools. Children may also be involved in spraying cocoa trees with pesticides or burning fields to clear them.”

A Tulane University report, commissioned as part of the accountability framework for the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol that was meant to end abuses in the industry, lays out the issue:

“Fifteen years ago, the West African cocoa sector came under increased scrutiny after media reports revealed incidences of child trafficking and other labor abuses in cocoa farming. On September 19, 2001, representatives of the international cocoa/chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Signing this agreement as witnesses were U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, the ILO, and representatives of civil society. Based on ILO Convention 182, the Protocol’s principal goal was “to eliminate the worst forms of child labor (WCFL) in the cocoa sectors of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.”

Remarkably, child labor in the cocoa industry has continued to proliferate despite the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001. In 2008, DOL estimated that 1.75 million children were working in West African cocoa production. By 2013-14, that number had risen to 2.26 million children, including 2.03 million children found to be performing hazardous work in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Tulane University study of the sector released in July 2015 found the following:

  • Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producer, experienced large growth in cocoa production from 2008-09 to 2013-14.
  • Total output rose by over half a million tons, or over 40%.
  • The population of children 5-17 years living in agricultural households in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing regions grew by about 180,000, or 5%.
  • The numbers of children working in cocoa production, doing child labor in cocoa production, and doing hazardous work in cocoa production grew by 59%, 48%, and 46% respectively.

What’s driving the growth?

In short, it’s us and our demand for cheap chocolate. The problem, of course, is that it’s not easy to harvest cocoa. It’s heavy, dangerous, delicate work. Fields must be cleared, planted, and tended. When the cocoa pods are ready, they must be harvested by hand, split open, and the seeds removed for drying. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive work.

That kind of labor should come at a significant cost. But as with so many commodities, the prices are kept low by squeezing labor out of workers who are largely invisible to consumers through a complicated supply chain structure. Consumer-facing companies are driven by the competing demands of delivering rock bottom prices and sky-high profits. Those with massive buying power – like Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlė – are able to bid down the prices of commodities like cocoa with their suppliers, who make up for low prices by paying less – or sometimes nothing at all – for the work.

Supply chain dynamics are of growing concern in the anti-trafficking movement. The seriousness of the global supply chain’s impact on workers was highlighted in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, and 2010 legislation in California, the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, now requires certain companies to report their specific actions to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.

We see the effect of this kind of price pressure on wages here in the United States. Retail cleaners in Minnesota, for example, have been squeezed by the low contracts bid by stores which result in wages as low as $4 per hour. Workers organized by CTUL have set a November 10 strike deadline for contracted cleaners. Farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields, facing the same structural barrier to fair earnings, used pressure on major retailers to increase the per/pound rate for tomatoes by $.01, resulting in a substantial step toward a fair wage.

But the kids harvesting cocoa don’t have that option. Sometimes sold for the equivalent of $30, sometimes kidnapped, they don’t have the power to stage a boycott.

That’s why earlier this fall a lawsuit alleging the use of the worst forms of child labor in the production of Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Mars chocolate products was filed by consumers in California. It’s not the first time that the companies have faced litigation over their labor practices, but this class action is the latest effort to pressure the chocolate industry to fix a problem it has known about for more than a decade.

Forced labor yields approximately $50 billion in profits annually according to estimates by the International Labour Organization. Included are profits derived from what are considered the worst forms of child labor, or WFCL, such as that used in the cocoa industry.

There are bright spots: While the number of children in West Africa’s cocoa production increased in the past five years, Ghana actually managed to reduce, albeit slightly, its numbers during that period.

So what will I do this Halloween? I’m not entirely sure. But I know I’ll start with a conversation.  To end this problem of child labor in the cocoa industry, more consumers need to know about the true cost of the chocolate they are buying.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy

More Resources to Learn about Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry:

The Dark Side of Chocolate – 2010 documentary by Miki Mistrati & U. Roberto Romano. In 2012, they produced a follow-up film called Shady Chocolate. The Shady Chocolate website includes an interactive cacao map and information how to write letters to the industry via the International Cacao Initiative.

Slave Free Chocolate has a list of ethical chocolate companiesFood Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List is also available as a free smartphone app.

Migration Not Border Security Problem; People Like Us Face Perilous Choices

Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA
Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA

The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.

But while calls for a naval blockade continue to be heard, a more nuanced take on Fortress Europe and the obligation to consider human dignity have surfaced. Pope Francis, who last year urged European leaders not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery, reminded those gathered for his weekly address that the migrants whose boat had foundered are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.

Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”

The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.

Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:

INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?

HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”

Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”

In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”

The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations.[1] We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.[2]

Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.

While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:

The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”

What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.