Tag Archives: Immigration

Do the most vulnerable refugees get resettled?

Googling this question results in headlines such as “World’s most vulnerable refugees struggle as US welcome mat shrinks”, “Pausing the Refugee Resettlement Program Will Harm the Most Vulnerable” and “World’s most vulnerable: are we responsible for them all? ”, reflecting US President Trump’s recent – now suspended – Executive Orders that, among other things, reduced the US’s intake of resettled refugees to 50,000 per fiscal year.

[Featured photo: “Canada ‘an inspiration’ on Syrian refugee resettlement”]

What is resettlement?

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees (who have, by definition, fled persecution in their country of origin) from one country to a third country where they are given a permanent legal status and expected to settle permanently; it’s been around since the 1970s in greater or lesser numbers. Resettlement globally is an established arrangement, whereby families and individuals are identified and screened by UNHCR according to seven categories (to which participating States have agreed) and are then sent to different resettlement countries. The resettlement countries evaluate the cases, conduct security checks, interview the families in many cases, and give a decision. Successful resettle-ees are transferred to their new country by IOM, and are received either by NGOs or the government entities responsible for them. Refugees in the resettlement pipeline are extensively vetted and screened, and it is the resettlement country that makes the final decision who goes and who stays. States have a legal obligation to receive refugees who show up on their territory, but resettlement is completely voluntary – which is why the two concepts should not be conflated, nor is resettlement the solution to a State’s unwillingness to abide by their legal responsibilities.

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What is vulnerability?

‘Protection’ vulnerability

UNHCR and countries, together, have established a number of categories that they have collectively agreed represent the most vulnerable refugees, or, phrased differently, the refugees most in need of resettlement. These categories are: medical needs, women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and/or torture, children at risk, legal and/or physical protection needs, and refugees lacking foreseeable alternative durable solutions. Although they probably don’t cover all possible eventualities, these categories do seem to encompass quite a number of vulnerabilities that would make resettlement the best solution for that particular family. Often, two or more of the categories are applicable – people who were tortured often have medical needs or may fear continued persecution, for example; a woman at risk may also have children who are at risk.

 

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“New study finds child marriage on the rise among vulnerable Syrian refugees.” Also, what’s with the signs?

 

The resettlement categories are all centered around a perspective of vulnerability that focuses on “protection” (protection, in refugee speak, is ensuring access and fulfillment of rights under national and international law). For example, someone with legal or physical protection needs might be in a situation where their rights to physical security, safety, liberty, etc., are not being respected; if there is no way to change the situation (i.e. where their asylum country is not able to ensure security or justice) they may need to be resettled to a different country. Or a woman who is head of household is at risk for sexual exploitation by her landlord or employer due to her vulnerable situation. Or an unaccompanied child who is vulnerable to exploitation or abuse. The focus on ‘protection’ is very understandable; after all, it is one of UNHCR’s core functions, and it is a logical extension of the concept that UNHCR exists to provide protection where the country of nationality can’t or won’t and where the country of asylum can’t or won’t. A protection-centred resettlement programme also makes for compelling individual stories of continued persecution, exploitation, or abuse. Although programming generally includes efforts to prevent or mitigate protection risks as well as establishing response mechanisms, identification of cases that have suffered abuse or exploitation, or are at individual risk, is difficult when considering the population as a whole, and many if not most cases are identified because the person or family themselves reported the situation.

Socio-economic vulnerability

But ‘protection’ is not the only metric by which one can assess vulnerability. Socio-economic vulnerability builds on work and research done on poverty and economic vulnerability to come up with a concept of vulnerability that focuses primarily on economic indicators, such as expenditures and assets, but should also encompass social metrics as well. The benefit of this kind of approach is that it is frequently more easily quantifiable – rather than the qualitative kind of approach taken with protection-related vulnerabilities – and hence can be applied over a wider population if proper tools are developed. Such initiatives in the Middle East, for example, have resulted in the Vulnerability Assessment Framework applied in Jordan; the VAF “defines the concept in terms of what a given person is vulnerable to, taking different sectors – such as lack of education, lack of documentation, or health liabilities – into account.” As UNHCR describes it, “vulnerability is notoriously difficult to capture […]  One broadly applied way to circumvent this measurement difficulty is to use expenditure as a proxy for refugee welfare.” The VAF therefore calculated a vulnerability score based on an individual interview/assessment with each family. Some of the assumptions and process behind the VAF are described here and some additional material can be found here. A similar approach was taken in Kakuma camp in Kenya, again focusing on expenditures as a proxy for welfare. In Lebanon, socio-economic vulnerability was assessed through a yearly vulnerability assessment (called the VASYR) conducted in a similar manner to the VAF but on a yearly basis so as to track trends over time, and as a second step, by using a predictive statistical model to identify vulnerable families without needing to conduct an individual interview.

Of course, socio-economic vulnerability and protection-related vulnerabilities are inter-linked: lack of (access to) work or documentation leaves people vulnerable to exploitation; people may be exposed to (or expose themselves to) hazardous situations out of economic desperation (for example, pulling children out of school; marrying off children at an early agesurvival sex; falling victim to trafficking; etc); and medical conditions may require expensive medications or require the presence of a caregiver which can impact a family’s earning potential or increase expenses. Anecdotal impressions suggest a strong correlation between socio-economic and protection vulnerability, but the causal logic could run in both directions.

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Vulnerability and resilience

[You could just skip this whole section and read the study that is extensively quoted here]

Resilience fundamentally concerns how an individual, household, community, society or state deals with shocks and stresses. […] According to the Regional UN Development Group (R-UNDG) Position Paper, prepared by a UNDG Regional Working Group on Resilience, the resilience-based development approach specifically looks at supporting resilience through development assistance, which aims to support institutions to respond to increased demand and pressure (characterised as “coping”), promote household recovery from the negative impacts of the crisis (“recovering”) and strengthen local and national economic, social and political institutions to protect development gains and enhance performance (“sustaining”).” (Source, p.iii)

This ODI study analyses definitions of vulnerability as considered by different humanitarian actors, and its relationship with the concept of resilience as being interrelated:

“In crisis contexts, vulnerability broadly refers to the likelihood of individuals or systems experiencing negative consequences on account of characteristics that make them exposed to those consequences in the first place ( i.e. exposure) such as being present in zones affected by the crisis and limited ability to manage the impacts of the crisis (i.e. coping capacities). Vulnerability and resilience are closely related because they both concern responses to shocks; they have been characterised as being two sides of the same coin, at opposite ends of the well-being spectrum and part of the same equation. [Furthermore]. analysis of vulnerability applies to different levels (e.g. individuals, households, communities, countries and systems) and to different shocks.” (Source, p.9)

But even if we are considering vulnerability to be an inability to withstand shocks, humanitarian actors still use traditional metrics (protection or economic-based models) to assess vulnerability:

[The Syrian Response Plan in Jordan] highlights the use of chronic poverty, the exposure to refugee influx, more ‘traditional’ categorical individual (or household) characteristics and social exclusion as indicators of vulnerability. The criterion of ‘reduced access’ stands out because, rather than saying that people with disabilities are necessarily vulnerable, it highlights that people with reduced access to resources and services are vulnerable and this may be due to disabilities. It therefore could shift analysis towards ‘who has access’ and ‘who participates’ rather than assuming that all women and older persons are vulnerable. (Source, p.11)

There are limitations in the extent to which such an approach is operationally applicable: the study notes how actors have attempted to establish categories of vulnerabilities that take into account economic constraints, profiles perceived as exposed to risks, and factors expected to represent access to certain rights or services. Although tools have become increasingly sophisticated (see some of the examples from Jordan and Lebanon) in assessing vulnerability for the purposes of identification and prioritization of beneficiaries, the results of these assessments are not frequently used to determine the type or extent of an intervention, and are often constrained by the particular framework of analysis (individual/household assessment vs community vs national level or regional analysis). Finally, there is a twofold limitation to this approach, which is that these models typically identify the symptoms but not the cause, and that, secondly, they do not focus on capacities but only vulnerabilities:

Categories, however, do not identify the ‘drivers’ of vulnerability. Drivers of vulnerability are the factors that influence and determine vulnerability. For individuals, gender inequality can be such a driver. For households, these can include lack of assets, resources and access to power structures. Scorecards and similar approaches can assess that a household is vulnerable because they are in debt and have poor food consumption, but alone do not provide analysis on the factors that are leading to their debt and poor household food consumption. (Source, p.13)

What does this mean for resettlement?

The short, and obvious, answer is that it is not so easy to determine vulnerability, much less assess it in a way that is both objective/systematic, and contextual/individualised. Even more so, how these assessments are conducted determines which families are included in the beginning of the pipeline of the resettlement process, to be screened and analysed for their individual needs and suitability for resettlement.

The Syrian populations in Lebanon and Jordan have proven ideal populations for these kinds of assessments: individually registered, located in areas that are accessible (both due to infrastructure and security), and with substantial international attention that brought the resources needed to conduct massive assessments and develop innovative approaches, especially as agencies were forced to prioritise resources for the “most vulnerable”. Many refugee populations are difficult to access due to security or infrastructure (Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or there are not sufficient resources to carry out such assessments in the face of budget and ration cuts.

Further distortions are caused by the resettlement system itself: countries select the populations that best fit their humanitarian and political goals, which may not directly correspond to the objective needs. Resettlement countries additionally can set additional criteria (in addition to refugee status and meeting one of the above-named vulnerability criteria) such as the “integration potential” requirement that is part of the legislation of some Nordic countries. “Integration potential” does not appear to be clearly defined in law, but is a legal provision that could well be at complete odds to the aims of resettlement itself: after all, those who are most exposed to risks and have the least capacity to withstand them may be the families most in need of resettlement but who will require more assistance once they get there.

With over 1.19 million refugees considered in need of resettlement in 2017, any measure of vulnerability will indicate that the needs far outstrip the available capacity for countries to receive them.

 

 

 

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International legal concept or convenient excuse? “First country of asylum” and “safe third country” concepts

Is there such a thing in International refugee law as “first country of asylum” and “safe third country” concepts?

(Featured image: reception conditions in Greece, January 2017, Photo: HRW)

Yes and no – and that depends a lot on the interpretation of what is meant by “international refugee law”. Both of these concepts – “first country of asylum” and “safe third country” are enshrined in EU refugee law but are not a part of the 1951 Convention or regional instruments such as the OAU convention or the Cartagena Declaration. Under International Refugee Law, there is no obligation to seek asylum at the first effective opportunity, and States retain their legal responsibility if they have effective control of persons or territory.

In our examples, we will frequently discuss situations in which a refugee from country A has passed through country B and is claiming asylum in country C.

What does the 1951 Convention say?

The 1951 Convention doesn’t have a provision about country of transit, safe third country, or first country of asylum. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is very specific about who is and who is not a refugee, including people who would ordinarily be refugees (i.e. having fled persecution) but for whatever reason should not be considered refugees. The 1969 OAU Convention mirrors the 1951 Convention in this respect, although provides a wider definition of who should ordinarily be considered a refugee.

The Convention enumerates a number of conditions whereby refugee status would cease to exist (Article 1(c)):  voluntarily re-availaing oneself of the protection of one’s nationality; re-acquiring nationality after having lost it; acquiring a new nationality that offers protection; voluntarily re-establishing oneself in the country of persecution;  or if the circumstances which precipitated flight no longer exist. Article 1(D) indicates that those under the mandate of a different UN organization (i.e. UNRWA for Palestine refugees) are not under UNHCR’s protection, and article 1(F) enumerates the people who do not deserve refugee status, i.e. for having committed serious non-political crimes prior to flight, commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity. These lists are exhaustive, meaning that these – and only these – criteria may be applied in determining that someone should not be granted refugee status even though they otherwise meet the definition of refugee.

The text of Article 1(E) reads as follows:

“E. This Convention shall not apply to a person who is recognized by the competent authorities of the country in which he has taken residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the possession of the nationality of that country.”

This article sets the standard at rights and obligations equal to those of nationals of the country, which is an important qualification especially in our discussion on what constitutes “sufficient protection”. Such refugees as have rights and obligations equal to those of nationals could be considered to have obtained a durable solution even if they have not obtained the nationality. A strict reading of this article would imply, however, that in order to be considered a durable solution under this Article, a refugee would have to have the kind of rights such as be able to vote, own property, perform compulsory military service, and have a right to re-admission – elements that are frequently restricted for non-nationals irrespective of whether other rights, i.e. to education, health, equal treatment, etc., are on an equal footing.

What about other sources of law?

There is no article relating to “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” in the Refugee Convention. Although there is no specific provision in the 1951 Refugee Convention that would allow a State to decide that our dear refugee from country A should have sought asylum in country B and therefore is not entitled to refugee status in country C, a number of countries have come up with various arrangements by which they wish to extricate themselves from the responsibility of assessing the asylum claim and granting refugee status to refugees. These endeavours have been reflected in subsequent so-called “soft law”  initiatives (such as Agenda for Protection and Convention Plus) as well as ExCom conclusions, including Conclusion No. 58 (XL) (1989) on Refugees and Asylum Seekers Who Move in an Irregular Manner From a Country in Which They Had Already Found Protection, which elaborates circumstances where a refugee might be returned to a country where they had already had asylum, provided that he or she can enter and remain there with full protection and access to a durable solution.

But these Conclusions and initiatives, for example, do not provide grounds for refugee status to be rejected in country C on the basis of previously having applied for asylum or stayed (for an unspecified amount of time) in country B; rather, they establish circumstances whereby country C would ensure that our refugee from country A can actually be readmitted and live in country B.

Non-refoulement – the principle of non return to a place where a person could be subjected to persecution, torture or ill treatment – is the cornerstone of international refugee law and is considered a principle of customary international law, beyond being enshrined in a number of international instruments such as the 1951 convention, the Convention Against Torture, etc. Non-refoulement still applies to any country having effective (de facto or de jure) control over persons OR territory (Australia, we are looking at you). If a person is returned to a country where he or she fears persecution it constitutes refoulement, but States are also responsible if they return a person to a country (country B) which then returns them to a country where they face persecution (so-called “chain refoulement“).

 

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EU law

EU law relating to asylum within the Common European Asylum System is regulated by a number of directives, notably the recast Qualification Directive (QD), the recast Dublin Regulation (DR), and the EU recast Asylum Procedures Directive (APD). We are presuming, in our examples, that our fictional refugee from country A, who at one time was in non-EU* country B,  is now applying for asylum in EU country C.

* some EU legislation related to refugees may also apply to non-member states such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland who apply i.e. the Dublin Regulations and Schengen but not necessarily other elements of the Common European Asylum System and are not necessarily bound by it. The Dublin Regulation regulates how asylum applications are to be handled if Countries B and C are both EU members or subject to the Dublin Regulations (EU + Norway, Iceland, Switzerland).

First country of asylum, according to Article 35 of the APD, refers to a refugee who has (already) received refugee status/durable solution in a previous country before applying for asylum in a different country – refugee from country A receives refugee status in country B before later leaving non-EU* country B and seeking asylum in EU* country C. According to EU law, the person has to have been recognized OR enjoy “sufficient protection” (more on that later); the person must be readmitted to that country; and the person has the right to rebut the presumption of a first country of asylum. Furthermore, EU* country C may (but is not required to), “take into account” a series of criteria (article 38) about how safe country non-EU* country B is.

Safe third country, according to Article 38 of the APT, has our fictional refugee A passing through non-EU country B – where she or he has not claimed asylum, or has claimed asylum but with no result – to EU country C where she or he then claims asylum. Again, Country B would need to agree to re-admit the person; there should be access to an asylum procedure  in accordance with the 1951 Convention and treatment in accordance with international law, especially protection from physical harm and refoulement, and protection of life and liberty.  Additionally to these provisions, the refugee ought to have a meaningful link to the country, which, according to UNHCR, should be more profound than a simple transit through country B.

Sufficient protection

Within EU refugee law, a refugee who is considered to have enjoyed “sufficient protection” in country B ought to return and be recognized there as a refugee (Article 35 APD). The text, however, does not define this “sufficient protection”, and only suggests that States look at the criteria in Article 38 withiut requiring them to apply these standards. Let’s take a look at Article 38 APD:

APD: Article 38 – The concept of a safe third country

1. Member States may apply the safe third country concept only where the competent authorities are satisfied that a person seeking international protection will be treated in accordance with the following principles in the third country concerned:

(a) life and liberty are not threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion;

(b) there is no risk of serious harm as defined in Directive 2011/95/EU;

(c) the principle of non-refoulement in accordance with the Geneva Convention is respected;

(d) the prohibition of removal, in violation of the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as laid down in international law, is respected; and

(e) the possibility exists to request refugee status and, if found to be a refugee, to receive protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

Although (b) above seems to closely mirror the refugee definition found in the 1951 Convention (a refugee is a person outside of their country of origin with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group and who is unable/unwilling to return), it should be noted that UNHCR has held that persecution – while not explicitly defined – encompasses fear of life and liberty but also fear of violation of other fundamental rights. Concievably, therefore, country B could violate some fundamental rights (like expression of religion or gender identity, to name two) without running afoul of this clause. Some of this “gap” is covered by the concept of “serious harm” according to the Qualification Directive (part (c) above, but it is conceviable that some gap exists. Theoretically, Article 38 is not itself meant to be grounds for refugee status, but is meant to determine if our asylum country B is suitable for our refugee, and should be rebuttable, such that our refugee ought to be able to highlight any “gaps” that would impact him or her personally, or if for another reason our refugee would face harm in country B that they would not face if given asylum in country C.

UNHCR’s opinion on the matter, according to brief on the legal considerations of the EU-Turkey deal:

According to UNHCR, it therefore follows from the text, context and object and purpose of Article 35 that ‘sufficient protection’ goes beyond protection from refoulement. In UNHCR’s view, ‘sufficient protection’ requires that protection in the first country of asylum is effective and available in law and practice,  allowing the person who has enjoyed asylum in a previous state to reavail him- or herself of that protection. This includes a number of critical elements:

– no risk of persecution within the meaning of the 1951 Convention or serious harm in the previous state;

– no risk of onward refoulement from the previous state;

– compliance, in law and practice, of the previous state with relevant international refugee and human rights standards, including adequate standards of living, work rights, health care and education;

– access to a right of legal stay;

– assistance of persons with specific needs;

– timely access to a durable solution

Although these criteria and circumstances are supposed to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, part of the problem is a continued exclusive focus on the legal regime (i.e. within the law, does the person have protection from refoulement, access to legal stay, etc.) with less emphasis on a qualitative analysis that ought to be just as important. The qualitative analysis must analyze if the protections exist only on paper or also in practice.

There is a substantial difference between treatment equal to that afforded to nationals (as per Article 1(E) of the 1951 Convention) and the rights/obligations of refugees as described in the 1951 Convention. Quite a number of the rights or treatment afforded to refugees under the 1951 Convention are limited or restricted in some manner.

In our previous discussion on some of the qualitative elements of “enjoying” asylum,  we note that the 1951 Refugee Convention states a number of rights and privileges to which refugees should have access – rights to things like employment, education, and documentation– but many of these rights, at least as written in the Convention, indicate that refugees should have rights comparable to those of other foreigners, and only in some limited cases should refugees enjoy rights on equal footing to nationals.  Rights to employment and family life, as well as freedom of movment, are frequently restricted or the subject of reservations to the Convention. In a previous post, we also looked at how the Convention handles rights to primary education, wage-earning employment and self employment. Even if rights to education or employment or access to justice exist on paper, they must also exist in practice, not only theoretically.

Finally, UNHCR has noted that the receiving country – in our example, country B – should give timely access to a durable solution. Which is an important point to note – very few countries outside of Europe and North America offer any kind of durable solution or permanent status attached to refugee status. Many refugee-hosting countries, in addition to specific legal restrictions, have a general regime (legal, assistance) predicated on the concept that refugees are temporary, and should not (and will not) become permanent members of society. If, in the end, this is the major qualitative difference between an EU country and a Country B where legal protections are afforded but no durable solution is in sight, it is a substantial difference indeed.

Safe third country” in application: the EU-Turkey deal

In conclusion, a country will have to meet a pretty high standard in terms of legal rights and treatment before it ought to be considered a “safe country” offering “sufficient protection”. Critics of the EU-Turkey deal have noted substantial shortcomings in both the legal  and administrative regime in Turkey which would indicate that Turkey should not be considered as offering “sufficient protection” as a “safe country”. More serious allegations against Turkey specifically include claims that Turkey is massively failing the basic metric of ensuring legal status and, most seriously, allegations that Turkey has refouled refugees back to countries of persecutionOthers have noted that the deal jeopardizes refugees’ right to seek asylum, as Turkey is not a member of the EU, so additional protections according to European Human Rights Law are not available to refugees in Turkey. Furthermore, Turkey also has a reservation to the 1951 Convention which excludes non-Europeans from falling under Turkey’s obligations. Limited capacity in both Greece and Turkey to conduct asylum interviews and ensure treatment in accordance with national and international laws is also a concern.

In addition, numerous criticisms highlight shortfalls of the Greek asylum system that could lead to violations of rights of refugees and asylum-seekers there, both in terms of whether Greece itself offers “sufficient protection” and whether its asylum system can ensure respect for the human and administrative rights due to refugees and asylum seekers under EU law. If refugees and asylum-seekers are not afforded individual consideration, interview and analysis, and are not afforded an opportunity to object, on an individual basis for specific reasons, to their return to Turkey, it would not be in accordance with the APD. The result could be that some people who have a specific good reason to not want to be returned to Turkey (i.e. LGBTI refugees) will not be adequately assessed, nor their administrative protections as per EU law upheld. Weaknesses in the Greek asylum were already considered severe when the European Court of Human Rights suspended returns to Greece under the Dublin Regulations (which ordinarily stipulate that an asylum claim be assessed in the first participating country where the fingerprints are taken) in 2011, prior to the currrent situation which has been widely reported as inefficient and ineffective. Human Rights Watch has alleged that the EU-Turkey deal has resulted in thousands being trapped in Greece for a year with no effective access to an asylum system at all.

 

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Conditions in Greece, 2017. Photo: National Hearald

 

Links and references:

On the EU-Turkey deal specifically:

 

Heart of darkness: Life in the Northern Triangle and the failure of international protection (part 1)

Photo: Reuters

Imagine a place where numerous powerful, armed groups operate throughout the territory. In any given city or rural area, two or more of these groups may be active, and there are constant and extremely violent clashes over territory. These armed groups regulate the daily life in areas under their control through curfews, standards of behavior, and conduct surveillance to see who communicates with whom. Add to that, the armed groups frequently demand “rent” (extortion) from citizenry living in their areas of control, from rich and poor alike, from the lady selling food out of a cart to a rich landowner.

They also like to recruit youth, particularly young men, and membership in these groups is for life – any attempt to leave is punished with violent reprisals against the person in question or his or her family. Similarly, young girls are targeted to be forced into sexual “relationships” with members of the group; women and girls are frequently raped and murdered, by their own “partners” and also as reprisals by their “boyfriends'” enemies. Recruitment is not voluntary: either you join, or they assume you must be collaborating with another group and hence are a threat. Refusal to comply with a demand from a member of an armed group, in terms of  refusing recruitment, refusing payment, or refusing sexual relations, will result in death threats. Walking on the wrong side of the street, wearing the wrong clothes, or having the wrong hairstyle can similarly imply affiliation with a group. And death threats often result in  gruesomely violent death: decapitated, hung from bridges, beaten to death, shot multiple times in broad daylight, mutilated. There is almost complete impunity for these crimes: in some places, over 98% of murders go unpunished, because of lack of resources or capacity by the authorities, or because armed groups have infiltrated, corrupted, or threatened police, witnesses, and the judiciary, or because authorities are unwilling or unable to take on groups whose members reportedly number up to 85,000.

Welcome to the Northern Triangle, comprising Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. More people were murdered in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, than in the entire country of France in 2015 with a murder rate of 142 per 100,000. The number of homicides in San Salvador was equivalent to the number of homicides in the UK, France, and Germany combined. Sources describe that, “Gang-related violence in El Salvador brought its homicide rate to ninety per hundred thousand in 2015, making it the most world’s most violent country not at war.”  [click here to see homicide rates for South Sudan, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Haiti]. There is almost complete impunity for crimes, over 98% of murders and 95% of sexual attacks go unpunished (and apparently, 2 out of the only 3 shelters for rape survivors in Honduras operate as brothels).

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If you lived in this kind of hell, where would you go? What would you do?

If you took your family’s savings and paid a smuggler to take you elsewhere, you would face a long overland journey where you could be subject to physical and sexual abuse (80% of women and girls crossing through Mexico from Central America report having been raped along the way), vulnerable to kidnapping and murder, or might choose a risky form of transportation that could well cost you your life or limbs. You pay a lot of money to make it across the border, and risk dying in the desert. You are intercepted by border control, detained, given a cursory interview, and deported. And then killed.

Wait, what?

Clearly, not everyone who attempts to enter the US, nor everyone originating from these or other Latin American countries, is a person in need of protection as a refugee. But the above scenario should give pause to those who blithely claim that all Central Americans are only economic migrants. And the only way to know for sure if someone is a refugee or an economic migrant is to ask them, in a language they understand, and in a setting that provides sufficient confidentiality.

In essence, the question is whether (a) US procedures give sufficient opportunity for people to explain if they have a fear of returning to their countries, and (b) if that fear is be duly considered in light of US law and international refugee law to decide, on the merits of each individual case, whether that person is a refugee. Refugee advocates argue that neither of these things is happening. Instead, the US government is focused on deterrence and criminalization of those entering its borders “illegally”; officials do not find it disingenuous that everyone must perforce enter illegally if there are no legal channels to do so, even though under international law seeking asylum cannot be penalized as illegal entry.

Human Rights Watch describes, in a 2014 report, what happens to a person once they cross the border:

The vast majority of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border without authorization are placed in detention and undergo a hasty two-part assessment by US officials under either “expedited removal,” for first-time border crossers, or “reinstatement of removal,” for migrants who have previously been deported from the United States.

In either case, to pass the first stage an agent from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or another US immigration agency must flag the person for a “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” assessment. To pass the second stage, migrants meet with an asylum officer from USCIS who determines whether their fear of return is “credible,” or in reinstatement cases, “reasonable” – that is, whether there is a significant possibility they will prevail in immigration court on their claim for asylum or protection from deportation to a country where they are likely to face torture.

[…] Data for 2011 and 2012 that Human Rights Watch obtained from Customs and Border Protection under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that few Central American migrants are identified by CBP as people who fear return to their country in the first stage of the expedited removal process. The data show that the vast majority of Hondurans, at least 80 percent, are placed in fast-track expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings but only a minuscule minority, 1.9 percent, got flagged for credible fear assessments by CBP. The percentages for Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are similar, ranging from 0.1 to 5.5 percent. By comparison, 21 percent of migrants from other countries who underwent the same proceedings in the same years were flagged for credible fear interviews by CBP.

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Graphic: HRW

Deterrence

For individuals and families who have been persecuted, brutalized, and abused, one would think that the proper response would involve sensitive staff, specialized care, and an in-depth evaluation of their situation.  Instead, HRW noted that the “US started detaining large numbers of migrant mothers and their children in July 2014 as part of what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called an “aggressive deterrence strategy” aimed at Central American unauthorized border crossers, among them many asylum seekers.”

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‘The ‘Caravan of the Mutilated’ Shows What People Risk When They Come to America, article by Alice Ollstein & Esther Yu-Hsi Lee (Photo: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee)

“[T]he common thread in DHS’ response to the thousands of women and children arriving at the United States’ southwest border in 2014 was to employ a multi-prong deterrence strategy consisting of (a) launching a multimedia public awareness campaign; (b) increasing U.S. assistance to help Mexico secure its southern border region; (c) decreasing the chances of gaining asylum by expediting the removal process; and (d) carrying out raids in January 2016 in search of individuals deemed to have exhausted their asylum claims. These actions were meant to heighten the challenges associated with coming to the United States and ensure that Central Americans knew about them.” (source)

Indeed, the US government’s policy of making the situation more difficult and dangerous, and making sure migrants know it, appears to have had little impact: “[A]nalysis of Honduran LAPOP survey respondents shows that knowledge of the risks of migration—deportation, border conditions, and treatment in the United States—played no significant role in who had plans to migrate and who did not have such plans.” Plans to migrate, furthermore, were closely linked to whether the person had been victimized once or multiple times in the last year:

“in Honduras, 28 percent of non-victims reported having intentions to migrate, which rises to close to 56 percent of respondents that had been victimized more than once by crime in the previous twelve months intended to migrate. In El Salvador, only 25 percent of non-victims had plans to migrate compared to 44 percent of those victimized multiple times expressing intentions to migrate. Only in Guatemala did non-victims and victims of a single crime report migration intentions at a similar rate.” (source)

It is therefore unsurprising that U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg, in his February 2015 ruling regarding DHS detention policy, concluded that, “Defendants [DHS] have presented little empirical evidence… that their detention policy even achieves its only desired effect—i.e., that it actually deters potential immigrants from Central America.”

Your tax dollars at work

Immigration advocates slam the increasing tendency in the US to criminalize immigration and immigrants, and to maintain detention, even of families and children, as an integral part of immigration policy. As Raul Reyes described it,

“The underlying problem with immigration detention is that most detainees are only guilty of being in the U.S. without authorization, which is a civil offense, not a crime. Yet detainees are treated like criminals, held behind bars and barbed wire, often in remote locations. In fact, in at least one respect, immigration detainees are treated worse than criminals: Criminal defendants have the right to a speedy adjudication and to court-appointed legal counsel. Immigration detainees do not. Detention punishes people in disproportionate relation to their alleged infractions, and contributes to the misconception that undocumented immigrants are criminals.”

They point out that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than native-born, and that the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses. Nevertheless,

“Unfortunately, immigration policy is frequently shaped more by fear and stereotype than by empirical evidence. As a result, immigrants have the stigma of “criminality” ascribed to them by an ever-evolving assortment of laws and immigration-enforcement mechanisms. Put differently, immigrants are being defined more and more as threats. Whole new classes of “felonies” have been created which apply only to immigrants, deportation has become a punishment for even minor offenses, and policies aimed at trying to end unauthorized immigration have been made more punitive rather than more rational and practical. In short, immigrants themselves are being criminalized.” (source)

Some immigration advocates estimate that the cost of pursuing immigration as a criminal matter:

In Fiscal Year 2011 alone, “the federal government paid immense sums of taxpayer money to private prison companies, $744 million and $640 million to CCA and GEO Group, respectively.” According to a Grassroots Leadership report, by 2011 Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group, the nation’s two largest private prison companies, “enjoyed a combined $780 million increase in annual federal revenues since 2005.” The report also notes that since the inception of Operation Streamline until 2012, the federal government spent “$5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry, above and beyond the civil immigration system.”

Although it is difficult to quantify the full costs of prosecuting individuals for illegal entry and reentry, the National Immigration Forum has estimated that in Arizona alone, the costs are as high “as $10 million per month… [A]nother $3.6 million per month is spent on defense lawyers in Arizona, primarily court-appointed private attorneys. The cost to prosecute defendants in Operation Streamline averages $10,000 a day and $50,000 a week in Tucson alone.”

Put differently, “the cost to house each detainee at Dilley is about $108,000 per year. A study funded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of more than 500 detainees between 1997 and 2000, found that 93 percent will appear in court when placed in a monitoring program. The savings of such a program for the 2,400 detainees at Dilley would be about $250 million per year.”And these figures refer only to a single facility. The  U.S. government has the largest immigration detention system in the world:

“Surprisingly, the largest detention and supervised release program in the country is not operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, but by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, which oversees the nation’s immigration detention program. According to the DOJ, its Federal Bureau of Prisons had nearly 200,000 individuals in custody as of December 2015. On the other hand, DHS’s immigration detention program detains around 400,000 people each year.”

And guess what?  “62 percent of all immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit prison corporations. For comparison, 7 percent of federal and state prisoners were held in for-profit prisons in 2005, rising to 8.4 percent by 2014—an increase of just 1.4 percent.”

So, the only reason that people are being detained is because of decisions to criminalize immigration, and then detain people indefinitely at extensive cost to the taxpaper, while serving no real purpose.

“The 2014 budget request for detention was $1.84 billion, a funding level that works out to about $5 million a day. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that keeping a person in detention costs $161 a day; family detention costs $298 a day.
These costs are especially wasteful given that private companies control about 62% of the immigrant detention beds used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement . That means taxpayer money is going into corporate pockets.
Meanwhile, there are alternatives to detention that are much cheaper. The estimated costs of using electronic ankle bracelets or in-person reporting programs run from 17 cents to $17 a day, says the ACLU. These methods have proved effective as well. In 2013, one pilot program testing such alternatives reported a 99% appearance rate at immigration court hearings among participants, and 79% compliance rate for removal orders.” (source)

 

See Part 2: Asylum claims from Central America in the US and Canada