The plight of tens of thousands of children coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is a political football, with slogans substituting for understanding. On July 9, AP published Young immigrants or refugees: 5 things you need to know — but their list omitted crucial information. Here’s essential information you need to know, but wouldn’t find in the AP article.
1. How does the U.S. handle refugees?
The AP article told a good story about refugee resettlement.
What AP didn’t say: The U.S. has stringent limits on the number of refugees it will accept each year — 70,000 in the year that ended June 1, 2014. The U.S. government limits refugees by area of the world and sometimes by country. For example, Latin America and the Caribbean were limited to 4,400, but somehow an additional 39 were admitted last year for a total of 4,439. Where did they come from? Cuba – 4,205; Colombia – 230; Venezuela – 3; Canada – 1 (and I’d like to hear that story!)
According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, “There were 15.4 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2012, 10.5 million under the mandate of UNHCR, down slightly from the previous year. That doesn’t include the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes. Add them in, and the number is 45.2 million worldwide.
2. How are people who flee conflict granted refugee status?
As AP notes, most refugees who are admitted to the United States after fleeing conflict have been certified as refugees by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which means that most of them are coming from refugee camps, where they may have lived for years.
What AP didn’t say: People who are fleeing Central America have no such option. There are no refugee camps for people fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. There are no refugee camps for people fleeing government persecution in any country of the region. There were no refugees admitted from anywhere in Central America last year.
Are any Central American residents eligible for refugee status? Emphatically, yes. In its Children on the Run report, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees concluded that “the large majority of children interviewed from all four of these countries … may well be in need of international protection.”
3. What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
AP correctly states: “An asylum seeker has entered the United States and now seeks protection from returning to their home country. The person must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.”
The primary legal difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker is where they are located when they apply — a refugee applies from outside the United States and an asylum seeker from inside.
What AP didn’t say: If a teenager from Honduras wants to apply for refugee status, she would have to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, present identity papers, fill out application forms, and document a well-founded fear of persecution. And if you think a frightened fourteen-year-old fleeing gangs who threaten to kill her and her family can do that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
Even inside the United States, that fourteen-year-old faces nearly insurmountable problems — no legal assistance, the luck of the draw in asylum officers assigned to decide the case, and the near-impossibility of providing “documentation” of her well-founded fears.
4. What is the history of refugees from Latin American countries?
The AP article focuses on the number of refugees the United States has admitted, and mentions Central American refugees from civil wars in the 1980s.
What AP didn’t say: The United States consistently refused to grant asylum to most of these refugees, while admitting large numbers of Cubans as refugees from communism.
Cuba has been the focus of U.S. refugee policy in Latin America, while applications from refugees from right-wing death squads and genocidal military and paramilitary operations were routinely rejected from the 1980s onward.
5. Children and families say they are fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Does that qualify them for asylum?
AP has half the story right, saying that children fleeing gang violence will be rejected if they apply for asylum. AP said, correctly, that the likely explanation for denying asylum is the claim that the children, while in grave danger of violence or death, may not fit the definition of a persecuted group.
What AP didn’t say: The U.N. High Commission on Refugees says these children do qualify for international protection, even though the U.S. government is likely to deny and deport them:
“… the key issues to understand are, first, that the harm feared or experienced by these displaced children may rise to the level of persecution; second, that the harm may have been or may be directed at these children due to one of the five protected grounds – race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and political opinion; and third, that the State is responsible for the harm or is either unwilling or unable to provide protection from it.”
International humanitarian law requires more. According to the Children on the Run report:
“In general, these are persons fleeing armed conflict, serious internal disorder, massive human rights violations, generalized violence or other forms of serious harm with no link to a refugee protection ground as contained in the international refugee definition. Such individuals should be given a formal, legal – complementary or subsidiary – status, with defined rights and obligations, for the period of time necessary to safeguard their safety and security.”
U.S. policy emphasizes detention, denial (of any request for asylum), and deportation. That’s not good enough under U.S. law, or under international law. And it’s definitely not good enough for the children.