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USA: UNHCR urges fair treatment for refugees, asylum seekers

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USA: UNHCR urges fair treatment for refugees, asylum seekers

3 May 2001

WASHINGTON, DC - The Washington Representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called today on the U.S. government to provide refugees and asylum seekers in the United States with full access to asylum processes, to treat them in a fair and consistent way across the country, and to end the current practice of imprisoning them. The appeal was made on the occasion of a special hearing on US asylum policy taking place today in the Senate.

"People fleeing wars and persecution to save their lives and freedom deserve respect and fair and humane treatment," said UNHCR Regional Representative Guenet Guebre-Christos. "These often traumatized individuals - many of whom may have suffered torture or other abuses in their home country, should not have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to tell their stories. They should have access to legal help to navigate the complicated U.S. asylum system and should not be locked up in jails like criminals."

UNHCR has urged the United States not to imprison asylum seekers and to consider alternatives to detention which ensure compliance with the asylum process. Some asylum seekers remain in detention while their asylum claims are processed, sometimes for many months or even years. Asylum seekers and refugees are often jailed together with criminals.

Women, children, and people with special medical or psychological needs may also be jailed while seeking asylum, causing renewed and unnecessary suffering. Children should not be separated from their parents while their parents' claims are being processed. Currently, this is not always the case.

Asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people held in detention should be entitled to an independent review, for example by an immigration judge, to determine whether they should be released. This is particularly crucial for people who have completed a criminal sentence, sometimes for minor offenses, but who cannot be deported and therefore stay in indefinite detention. They can remain behind bars indefinitely, in effect serving what could amount to a life sentence, above and beyond the sentence imposed for their offense.

Current U.S. asylum practices stem from immigration legislation passed by Congress in 1996.

"We strongly believe the 1996 immigration laws went too far and are inconsistent with the generous American tradition of hospitality and fair treatment of those fleeing persecution," said Guebre-Christos. "The U.S. is a country with strong refugee roots and long-standing humanitarian traditions which are not reflected in the 1996 laws. The United States should serve as a model for the rest of the world and have the best practices to be followed by others. This is not the case at the moment," she added.