(4 of 4)
Questions Without Answers
So what can be done? Today's refugee crisis is a global one, and it demands responses from all nations not just those who are bearing its brunt. Today, "there is freedom of goods and services, but there's not an acceptance of the movement of people," says Denis Nihill, the chief of mission of IOM in Indonesia. "It's not traditionally seen as being a multilateral issue." Figuring out how to manage borders without excluding genuine asylum seekers isn't easy. Says Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR public-information officer in Bangkok: "The challenge for everybody coast guards, human-rights activists, border patrol, everybody is to figure out who's who."
That challenge is particularly acute, given that the profile of those claiming asylum status is changing. In one widely publicized case, the U.S. recently granted asylum to a family who said they could not freely homeschool their children in Germany. Seeking shelter from persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal or not tolerated is also becoming a more common asylum claim. And what about Brandon Huntley, the 31-year-old white South African who was granted asylum in Canada last year after citing intolerably high crime and what he claimed was growing persecution of a once privileged minority?
The factors that make the global asylum system so unpredictable today also mean that cookie-cutter fixes won't work. "We couldn't write a global report on how to improve treatment of refugees worldwide," says Frelick of Human Rights Watch. "That's taking too big a bite. We take nibbles. And we make some improvements."
There are bright spots. In Asia, South Korea granted citizenship to a recognized refugee for the first time this year, and the UNHCR has recently lauded Malaysia, another major crossroads for asylum seekers in Asia. Spain announced it would start resettling refugees for the first time in February; last year, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg did the same. In 2008, the E.U. issued a joint pledge to try to resettle up to 10,000 Iraqi refugees, the first time that all 27 member states less than half of which have annual resettlement programs made a collective commitment to refugees. Though it's not binding, "it's still a very positive thing," says Nathalie Stiennon of the International Rescue Committee in Brussels.
The U.S. has become a benchmark for its generous refugee program. Applications are typically processed within a year (fast by world standards) and more refugees have been resettled in the U.S. than in all other countries combined. In 2008, 22,930 people were granted asylum and another 60,100 refugees, mostly from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan, were resettled from their first country of asylum into the U.S. (The U.S. is helping resettle up to 60,000 ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan who say they were forced out of the small Himalayan nation in the early 1990s.) The Obama Administration has announced it may end its policy of funneling asylum seekers into the nation's 300-plus immigrant detention centers while their cases inch through the legal system. That would be "a fundamental shift if it happens," says Sarnata Reynolds, policy and advocacy director for refugee and migrants' rights at Amnesty International USA.
Neither Here Nor There
For a lucky few, good news arrives. In late June, Sayed Ali Jan and his wife got a phone call from the UNHCR office in Jakarta: their refugee status had been granted. "I am shocked," said Sayeeda, beaming. "We are ready to go." When the young family will be able to move on is a question still unanswered; maybe before Kaienat's second birthday, maybe after her fifth. As one wait ends, another begins.
For millions of refugees and asylum seekers, surviving the crushing isolation of that wait is a daily feat. Before her roommate Haweeya was buried, 19-year-old Haboou Abdilahi sat outside the hospital morgue in a long black dress and headscarf. Abdilahi, who also has UNHCR refugee status, held her friend's U.N. refugee card and paperwork in her lap, trying at the same time to pay respects while not looking at Haweeya's corpse on a metal table six feet away, thin chin and shoulders jutting up from under the cotton shroud. When asked where in Jakarta she lived, Abdilahi replied, "Me and Haweeya live together." A moment of confusion passed over her face and she shook her head. And then, "I live alone."
with reporting by Behrang Kianzad / Vellinge And Vivienne Walt / Tripoli