Our Take on the Crisis in Europe and Limitations of Refugee Protections
NWIRP Executive Director
Like many of you, I have been moved by images of asylum seekers fleeing a desperate situation in Syria and other countries seeking protection in Europe. Reactions to these asylum seekers by many countries have ranged from troubling to inhumane. Pictures of men, women, and children facing razor wire, fire hoses, and pepper spray have been distributed by media outlets. And while we at NWIRP are horrified by such violent reactions, we are also disheartened by how many characterize these asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants."This situation reminds us that international norms of immigration policy that were put in place following World War II are outdated and don't comport with the realities of the 21st century. We have been disappointed that media coverage of the crisis in Europe continues to state that anyone fleeing conflict will qualify to be a "refugee" in the legal sense. The sad reality is that many people are likely to be denied refugee status or asylum because those protections are not as broad as they should be.
In the United States, courts have found that fleeing a civil conflict, such as the one in Syria, is by itself not sufficient to merit asylum. Real fear that one faces harm is sadly not enough to gain protection. To put it another way, a family who has been caught in the middle of the conflict, whose home has been destroyed and who has to leave Syria to be safe, isn't necessarily a "refugee" in the legal sense, even though most people think such a family should be protected. In order to meet the definition, the person needs to show a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race or ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. While a person fleeing conflict might also meet these criteria, it is a much more complex question to be able to establish.
We see the same dynamic play out in cases involving the families, children, and individuals fleeing gang violence in Central America. While the vast majority of these individuals are fleeing situations where they face clear risk of harm, the reason they fear harm does not fit neatly into categories that were first outlined in 1951 when people were thinking about persecution based on political opinion, religion, or ethnicity due to the tragedies that occurred during WWII. Our laws need to reflect the reality that conflict now is different than it was in the first half of the 20th century; that the fear of persecution is much broader than simple categorization can account for.
The bottom line is that, although most people might agree that a person fleeing serious risk of harm should be protected, accessing protection is complicated in virtually every case. The categories for meeting asylum requirements are restrictive, and most asylum seekers need help determining how they meet those requirements. Legal representation is an important factor in ensuring that these individuals are able to obtain protection under the law. But in the United States, asylum seekers do not have a right to an appointed attorney if they cannot afford private representation. That's why the work we are doing together, to help people navigate the complex immigration legal system and gain safety and stability is so important.
Locally, we are seeing more and more asylum seekers detained in the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, where they are isolated from family, community, and resources. And because asylum seekers (like other immigrants) facing deportation proceedings are not provided representation if they cannot afford an attorney, they have a much lower chance of gaining protection. A recent report reinforced what we've long believed:
"Results continue to show that the single most important factor in determining outcome is whether [immigrants] are represented in their court proceedings... the odds of being allowed to remain in this country were increased more than fourteen-fold if [immigrants] had representation."
Humanitarian crises like what is unfolding in Europe are further reminders that international and domestic protections should be reformed in order to provide safety to those fleeing violence around the world. In the United States, our continued criminalization of immigrants has resulted in policies that take away previously established rights more often than not, and that cause more and more people who need protection to be returned to their home countries.