30 Years On Refugee Rights Still in Flux

March 17, 2010

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the US Refugee Act of 1980, a bipartisan bill that made concrete the US government’s commitment to people fleeing persecution and human rights violations.

There are more than 40 million refugees and other displaced people in the world and this number is neither a temporary problem nor the random product of chance events. It is the predictable consequence of human rights crises, the result of decisions made by individuals who wield power over other people’s lives.

From the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat people and refugees fleeing the former Soviet Union, to today’s Iraqi and Bhutanese refugees, the refugee resettlement program has been an enduring symbol of the US government’s commitment to protect those who flee persecution.

Unfortunately, in the 30 years since passage of the Refugee Act, US law, policy and practice has often ignored the rights of asylum seekers inside the US. The Refugee Protection Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Leahy (D-VT) and his colleagues this week, goes a long way toward restoring US respect and protection for the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and others on the move by addressing dire US immigration detention conditions, protecting victims of terrorism from being defined as terrorists, requiring non-discriminatory interdiction policies, and providing protection for stateless people in the US.

One of the cruelest ironies for people seeking protection in the US – many of whom have been detained and tortured at home – is that they are subject to mandatory detention as soon as they request “safety” here. Despite the fact that this law is in direct violation of obligations under the Refugee Convention, the US continues to use detention as a means to deter refugees from seeking asylum or to encourage them to abandon their asylum applications.

If passed, the Refugee Act of 2010 will make critical changes to US immigration law consistent with international obligations and the language and intent of the 1980 Refugee Act. For example, it will ensure that all asylum seekers who have passed a “credible fear” interview will be immediately considered for release from detention.

Senator Leahy’s bill includes other key safeguards for the human rights of detained refugees and asylum seekers. The bill establishes a nation-wide, secure “alternatives to detention” program, which will reduce the unnecessary and undue detention of asylum seekers and immigrants who pose no threat. In addition, the bill makes minimum standards of humane treatment in detention enforceable by law. These provisions will ensure protection of the basic human rights and human dignity of those seeking a new life in the US.

Amnesty International USA applauds the efforts of Senator Leahy and his colleagues to pass legislation repositioning the US as a champion of refugee rights in the 21st century, and urges all members of Congress to support this act.

  • Sung In Marshall contributed to this blog