Wednesday, November 30, 2011

South Africa: Legal Changes Hurt Asylum Seekers

It's another case of a huge backlog of asylum seekers persuading the government to make decisions that are not well thought out.

South Africa has a huge number of asylum seekers- UNHCR estimates just under 230,000- most of whom originate from Zimbabwe, supplemented by others from the Great Lakes region and the Horm of Africa. Starting in 2009, (perhaps overwhelmed by the numbers) the South African government took a generous policy towards Zimbabweans fleeing Mugabe's regime. Under a "special dispensation," refugees were entitled to remain in S.A. for 6 months, seek employment, and take advantage of educational and healthcare opportunities while their asylum applications were being processed, all without any form of documentation. (Although the dispensation was designed to assist Zimbabweans, as you might be able to guess, the "no documents" feature enabled a range of different nationalities to take advantage of the law.)

Now the government is back-tracking, concerned that economic migrants are abusing a system designed to protect "real" refugees. The department of Home Affairs has resumed deportations, and in the following weeks they will launch an inquiry to the minimum rights asylum-seekers are entitled to, and likely lift the dispensation for Zimbabweans as well as block rights to education and employment. The result could be thousands of asylum seekers in legal limbo, awaiting the outcome of their asylum application while unable to work or study. These developments, in conjunction with harsh announcements from the government and the closing of two refugee facilities, seems to signal a shift towards a harsher asylum regime in South Africa. As one government spokesman stated:
"South Africans must feel safe. If we're not able to control our illegal immigration, people won't feel safe."
It is understandable that providing education and/or employment for thousands of refugees is a costly measure. But the opposite can be ultimately be more expensive: thousands of individuals awaiting the outcome of their claim, turning to begging, crime, or black market employment to make ends meet. Which option do you think is safer for the people of South Africa? And in the event that the move forces massive returns to Zimbabwe as some fear it might, there is the question of whether S.A. is meeting its treaty obligations, particularly as pertains to non-refoulement.

In the end, the real question for South Africa is: is there a middle ground between all or nothing for Zimbabwe's asylum seekers?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Non-Citizen News Roundup

Photo via AP
Israel: On Sunday, hundreds of immigrants and allies protested at the Israeli Immigrant Absorption Ministry after a recent government recommendation to reduce the number of Ethiopian Jews accepted monthly as part of aliyah. The idea comes at a time when the government claims it is having trouble keeping up with the pace of immigration and assimilation needs. Opponents of the plan claim that there are already close to 4,000 recognized Ethiopian Jews waiting to immigrate and that the Government is looking for excuses to avoid its obligations. (There's probably a little truth to both positions.)
Ethiopians Protest Govt's Proposal to Reduce Aliyah (via Jerusalem Post)

UK: The United Kingdom is getting some increased (and probably unwanted) attention in the wake of a new report by UNHCR describing the legal limbo that stateless persons there live in. Many have been denied asylum or any right to remain, but are also un-deportable because no country will accept them. Therefore, they live on the street or hang out in detention centers- not a good situation.
Mapping Statelessness in the UK (via UNHCR)
What its like to be Stateless in Britain- Nischal's Story (via Alertnet)

Australia: Shockingly, Australia has more asylum trouble this week, as 3 Kurdish aslyum-seekers have sewn their lips together in the wake of having their asylum applications denied. Due to the fact that the young men are stateless, they cannot be repatriated anywhere and instead have remained in detention for between 18 and 22 months each. Much like the UK problems described above- it sounds like governments are going to need to reevaluate how they handle non-deportable stateless persons- endless detention and legal limbo are not the answer!
3 Kurdish Men Sew lips together in Protest (via Courier Mail)
Asylum Seekers sew lips together in Australia Protest (via AsiaOne)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is it a good thing? Sweeping changes to US ICE

The NY Times is reporting  that they have obtained a document describing the new immigration priorities policy that Homeland Security will kick off this week- and it is a big deal, effecting some 300,000 cases. Let's break it down.

The policy will be aimed at instructing all actors in the deportation process- from immigration agents, to judges, to prosecutors- to streamline their cases to fit the following priorities: close out cases of non-dangerous undocumented immigrants, and speed up deportations of criminals. According to the Times, the policy is intended to:
scale back deportations of illegal immigrants who were young students, military service members, elderly people or close family of American citizens, among others.
For immigration agents, this means releasing (or perhaps not catching in the first place) people that are not dangerous criminals, repeat offenders, or national security risks. For prosecutors, this means exercising discretion in which cases to bring before the judges. And for judges, this means a more lenient approach to immigration law violators. Sounds like a good deal, right? Particularly in comparison to the heavy-handed approach the Obama administration has taken in ordering over 400,000 deportations (the most of any President in recent memory) in each of the first three years of his presidency. Perhaps that was an effort to clear out the courts to make way for this more liberal policy?

However, there is still much to be concerned about. I visited an immigration detention facility not  long ago, where most individuals held were repeat offenders or criminals. However, the most frequent crime was "loitering," that is, dwelling outside of a hardware store or similar, waiting for work. Will the new policy consider people like this to be deportable?

In addition, while Homeland Security pushes a discretionary, flexible approach, the states are in some cases pushing the opposite message. Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and other states have laws on the books making police officers responsible to some degree for enforcing immigration laws- will they also get the memo that passing non-violent undocumented youth into federal hands is likely to lead to an eventual release? And which level- state or federal- is more likely to have the more immediate impact on immigrant's lives?

At the end of the day, the mish-mash of approaches taken by the US government in the last few decades leads to fear and confusion among immigrants primarily, but also to ample confusion among the law enforcement professionals meant to interpret these laws and policies on every level. It is encouraging to see the Obama administration taking the heat off non-criminal and youth immigration law violators, but until we see Comprehensive Immigration Reform it seems hard to believe that everyone that needs to know will get the message.

US to Review Cases Seeking Deportation (via NY Times)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

UNHCR to host major summit on statelessness

UNHCR announced yesterday that they would hold a major summit in Geneva on December 7th and 8th on the topic of statelessness and forced displacement, calling it "the diplomatic centerpiece" of the year.

Adrian Edwards, UNHCR spokesperson, announced that major government representatives from many countries would attend, as well as at least one head of state (probably not Berlusconi, sadly) and that there would be a "treaty signing event". Given that the major treaty focus of the year is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, it seems we can hope for some additional accessions. Of course, there are still plenty of countries that have not signed the Refugee Convention (coughASIAcough) so that could be another focus.

So, in one month are we going to see some major advances on statelessness and displacement? Let's hope so! Wish I could snag an invite....

UNHCR to host international meeting on world's stateless, forcibly displaced

Monday, November 7, 2011

Greece: The pressure is on to fix a failing aslyum system

Asylum seekers wait in Greece, photo by Moises Saman
 In addition to the problems Greece's government seems to be having of late with corruption, there are several factors compounding their migration woes. On the one hand, the border between Greece and Turkey is the main entrance point for people fleeing to Europe, making Greece a reluctant EU gatekeeper (alongside a disincentivized Turkey.) On the other hand, you have Dublin II which makes it EU policy to send asylum seekers back to their first entry point in the Union to be processed. In other words, even if plenty of people make it out of the country, Greece can't realistically escape from being a major asylum-seeker center.

The government currently has a giant backlog of asylum applications, a small percentage of which have a chance of being reviewed any time soon if past numbers are anything to go by. As of January 2011 , UNHCR set the number of asylum seekers at over 55,000, and rumor has it that a many people have been waiting more than 10 years to be reviewed. In January the government promised to streamline procedures and set deadlines for decisions, but its not clear that much progress has been made. The events of the last few weeks suggest that the problem is actually getting worse.

On October 26, UNHCR called for a monetary intervention on the border in language that pretty clearly accused the government of wrongdoing (and possibly torture?)
The humanitarian situation on the Greek side of the border is critical, with large numbers of persons detained in extremely difficult conditions, as recently highlighted by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture Mr. Manfred Nowak after a visit to the area. Shelter, medical care and psycho-social support are all needed in this situation.
In addition, the press release implied that the current asylum in procedure in Greece is unavailable to most asylum seekers and unable to identify individuals at risk of refoulement.

Quickly coming to the rescue, Norway announced on November 3rd that they would inject 160 million kroner (c.a $28 mil) into Greece's asylum system, to be funneled through the UN. The Memorandum of Understanding, which also involved IOM and other NGOs in Greece, apparently targets the funds for reception centers, in particular for health care for arrivals.

But in the meantime, those asylum-seekers who have been residing in Greece for the last decade face legal limbo, discrimination, and arbitrary procedures. According to a press release this week from the Greek Council for Refugees, there have been recent mass arrests in Athens, leading to abbreviated asylum procedures that violate Greece's own procedural safeguards. It seems that these actions were an attempt to speed up procedures after recieving so much negative attention for their backlog. However, I think the Greek Council for Refugees puts it best:
The attempt of the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection to complete the asylum procedures of as many asylum seekers as possible in the briefest possible time period is obvious. But these actions must not only be aimed at finalizing the procedure but they should be in accordance with the law and protect these people and their rights.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Non-Citizen News Roundup

Dia de los Muertos in Mexico City
Mexico: Maybe its not strictly relevant, but it is timely: Brujas and Brujos in Mexico find themselves in high demand for problems related to drug cartels. Some witches charge for protection from extortion, or use their senses to find a missing kidnapped relative. And its not just victims turning to the craft: some of the wizards and witches report visits by cartel members and police officers as well.
Mexicans turn to witchcraft to ward off drug cartels (via NY Times)

Australia: Sad news this morning as a capsized  boat carrying asylum seekers left at least 8 dead and 10 still missing,. The boat carried some 70 Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani asylum seekers determined to make the passage from Indonesia to reach Australia's shores. The incident is causing a big rehashing of the Malaysian swap deal. As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen stated, "it is a fact that when you have more boats coming to Australia you will see more deaths." (So it's either flout the 1951 Convention OR death at sea? Is there possibly a third option?)
10 asylum seekers still missing off Java  (via Sydney Morning Herald)
Australia shock at asylum boat tragedy off Indonesia (via BBC)

Croatia: At a meeting in Zagreb on birth and civil registration, the UNHCR urged Southeastern European countries to accede to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Currently, both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzogovina have acceded, but many other nations in the region have not. Among other protection, the 1961 convention provides that a child born in the country who would otherwise be stateless receives the nationality of the birth country. The UNCHR argued this would help the plight of the region's Roma, who currently represent a majority of the stateless and legally invisible. I couldn't agree more.
UNCHR drives effort to reduce statelessness in Southeast Europe (via Alert Net)