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Asylum-seekers at border barred from rights

December 23, 2018

A caravan of more than 7,000 men, women and children has reached the end of a 2,500-mile journey through Mexico to the U.S. border in Tijuana. Many of them may be legitimate asylum-seekers who have been denied the human right to seek refuge.

(On Thursday, the administration announced a deal with Mexico that asylum-seekers would remain in Mexico while they await processing amid concerns of their safety there).

The unprecedented exodus of children and families fleeing Central America is the result of a humanitarian crisis. However, President Donald Trump’s administration views it as a security-related threat and deployed thousands of active-duty troops to the border as the caravan approached.

By attacking human dignity and denying the right to apply for protection at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration has abused the human rights of the members of the caravan, who are seeking asylum.

Three of Trump’s core security and immigration policies warrant particular criticism from human rights advocates.

First, the Trump administration made drastic cuts to the number of refugees allowed into the United States, dropping the number from 53,716 in 2017 (total refugees admitted by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Admissions-Refugee Processing Center) to 45,000 in 2018 and 30,000 for 2019. This number is the lowest since the refugee program was created in 1980, below the 67,000-person limit set by President Ronald Reagan.

Second, migrant families have been inhumanely separated. In early 2018 when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the enforcement of a “zero-tolerance policy” along the border, he bluntly affirmed at a law enforcement event in Scottsdale, Ariz., “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. … If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Third, the erection of a border wall was a central campaign promise. While the president requested $25 billion for construction of the wall, the Government Accountability Office questioned his figures due to missing information. Since costs can vary depending on topography or land ownership, further analysis of the costs is required.

To understand the human rights violations committed against asylum-seekers, it is important to comprehend the difference between refugees and economic migrants. When individuals of each group arrive at borders, they do not undergo the same screening.

Economic migrants are individuals who decide to leave their home willingly. They have determined their destination and looked at the opportunities that may be presented to them if they leave.

Refugees, on the other hand, are forced to leave. They are persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, gender or political opinion. As defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are entitled to basic rights under international law. One of those rights guards against immediate deportation back into a threatening situation.

Moreover, Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states, “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

To further guarantee the protection of refugees, in 1950 the United Nations created the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees “to ensure their eventual integration within either their country of origin or another country.”

Despite efforts to protect refugees, the international community has had difficulties defining who is a refugee under international law. As a result, states do not take into account modern realities and evade responsibility when it suits them.

Of course, there could be no way at the founding of the international refugee treatment agreements to anticipate the impact of gang violence and the dangers they pose to Central Americans within weak states.

Seeking asylum is a human right that must be protected and enforced by each member of the international community, including the United States. Realpolitik policies cannot take advantage of weaknesses in the international refugee agreements to serve their own interests.

Claudia Donoso, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of graduate international relations at St. Mary’s University and an expert on human security in border zones. The views are those of the author and do not represent the views of St. Mary’s University.

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