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HOWARD HUMAN & CIVIL RIGHTS LAW REVIEW © 2016 

For Syrian Refugees Who Have Considered Suicide When Asylum Isn’t Enough

February 15, 2017

 

 

Introduction

 

          Picture it. August 2012, Ferguson, Missouri. As you recall, hundreds are gathered in the streets to protest the shooting of an unarmed African-American by a police officer.[2] You, like many Americans, are tuned into various cable news outlets, as the country witnesses high-tech  armored tanks, vehicles, and brigades of heavily armed police inch towards American protestors in our own backyard. This isn’t the first time you’ve viewed a protest. The right to protest after all, is an American cornerstone documented throughout our nation’s history. This also isn’t the first time you’ve tuned into the news of a police officer shooting an unarmed African-American. That too, is well documented. But this protest is different. It doesn’t look good. It’s scary.

 

          While watching the nightly anchor describe the scene, you hear what appears to sounds like gun shots in the background. Panic ensues on the screen; crowds can be seen dispersing, and moments later aerial coverage reveals the lifeless bodies of American protestors lying in the street. Questions immediately arise. Did they get to close? Did the officers mistakenly shoot? Or were the officers simply angry and frustrated at protestors? Whatever the case, the aftermath is not good. In response to the deaths of protesters in Ferguson, protests in major cities erupt across the country. More armored tanks, more heavily armed police, more dead bodies.  

 

          The country downward spirals.  Some say that this is the result of an anti-police/anti-government movement. Others say, this is the result of the amassed war on civil liberties. Yet, however one views the government’s actions as either a necessary response for the ‘unamerican’ protest of police; or as an antagonistic and hostile rebuke of the right to assembly, police accountability, and systematic racism; the damage is done. Lives are lost. Trust and accountability has eviscerated. Ideological fractions have commenced and lines have been drawn. The whistles to join and support “law and order” are clear. The scolding of the silent or inactive people to rise, ‘fight the power’ or be branded an enemy are clear as well. You must flee; or else choose a side for your own safety and livelihood to prevent job loss, eviction, admonishment, torture, and even death; from EITHER side, as a result of your unamerican spirit; your elitist indifference; or your coonish betrayal.

 

          Thankfully this ‘what could have been’ scenario did not unfold in Ferguson, Mo. Nor did it unfold in Baltimore, MD; New York, NY; Baton Rouge, LA; or Minneapolis, MN. However, on March 18, 2011, an unidentical yet significantly relevant tragedy did unfold in what is now the dilapidated city of Deraa, Syria. [3] In Deraa, a number of teenage boys were arrested and tortured by Syrian security forces after painting “revolutionary slogans” on a school wall. [4] After Syrian security forces were not held accountable, local protests ensued.

(Sounding familiar?) During the local protest, Syrian security forces responded violently with lethal force and ultimately three demonstrators were left dead, and dozens more the injured. [6] With again no formal accountability, more protest erupted throughout the country and again and again, protestors were met by violent military forces. [7] Within one month, 260 civilians had been killed during demonstrations [8] ; 72 alone on April 22, 2011, when Syrian Security forces opened fire on a rally. [9] Stunned world leaders called for a halt to the violence, with then President Obama stating “the outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.” [10] The violence however did not end; and today “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” has taken place as a result. [11]

 

This article will discuss the fallout of the Syrian Civil War that has resulted in the worldwide Syrian refugee crisis. It will discuss the importance of this human rights issue, and the need for the World, especially the United States, to refrain from discriminating against Syrian Refugees et. al, by way of Islamphobia disguised as national security interests through presidential executive orders and congressional action. Part I will give a background of the Syrian Conflict that has resulted in the Syrian refugee crisis. Part II will outline the process Refugees must undertake in seeking asylum in the United States. Part III will detail the blatant and unfounded discrimination against Syrians. Part IV will conclude.

 

I. The Syrian Conflict

 

          Syria, is a country located south of Turkey and West of Iraq, that once boasted a population of 21 million people. [12] Its major religion is Islam; and like many Middle Eastern countries followers of the faith fall into two major branches: Shiism (Shiite) and Sunnism (Sunni). [13]  Syria however is one of just two countries in the Middle East with a Shiite minority ruling over a Sunni majority. [14] This has been the case for 42 years under the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, and his father who presided over the government before him. [15] While the relationship of a Syrian’s citizens and al-Assad’s minority government regime has been complex for decades, the current civil unrest can be traced to the March 2011 arrest and torture of three teenage boys who were inspired by the pro-democracy Arab Spring in Libya, and thereby painted pro-democratic “revolutionary slogans” on a school wall. [16]

 

          As protests spread across the country President Assad spoke out against the protests, blaming them on imperialist forces, conspirators and “armed gangs and terrorists” determined to destroy his government. [17] What began as a small protest in the city of Deraa escalated into an all-out civil war during the latter half of 2012 between al-Assad’s regime and various government opposition groups and Sunni rebel brigades. [18] Born out of the conflict in Syria, was the terrorist group known as ISIS, [19] a jihadist group operating within Iraq and Syria with the stated mission of “eradicat[ing] obstacles to restoring God's rule on Earth.”

To accomplish this mission, ISIS as shockingly documented, uses barbaric tactics to terrorize enemies which they believe to be mandated by their religion in order to cleanse and restore God’s rule on earth. [21]

 

          As a result of the internal conflict, Syrian civilians are caught in between the crossfires of an oppressive government, unrelenting opposition groups, and a terrorist organization. The Syrian government has been found to engage in “massive arbitrary arrest and firing against unarmed civilians and shooting medical personnel who attempted to aid the wounded,” [22] and also been found using chemical weapons on its own citizens . [23] In just one occurrence, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government launched rockets carrying chemical weapons that struck outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing an estimated 1429 people, including 426 children. [24] While such evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other gross human rights violations have been acknowledged by the United Nations[25] sanctions and resolutions against Syria have been futile due to the veto power of Russia and China, both of whom shockingly and yet un-shockingly support al-Assad’s treatment of dissenting Syrian citizens. [26]

 

 

          Atrociously, since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 over 470,000 Syrians have been killed. [27] Furthermore, 4.8 million have fled the country; 6.3 million have been displaced inside Syria; 1 million of the displaced people are living in collective shelters, camps, or makeshift settlements; 13.5 million require humanitarian assistance [28]; and the average number of people displaced per day from January to August 2016 was 6,150. [29] With no end of the conflict in sight, it is critical that the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, not wane in assistance to this humanitarian crisis, and significantly by means of accommodating Syrian refugees secure settlement through the appropriate process efficiently.

 

II. Establishing Refugee Status In the United States
 

            Unbeknownst to some, and obviously so, based upon recent recycled fear mongering rhetoric to halt refugee resettlement of citizens from particular countries; [30] the screening process one must endure to secure resettlement in the United States is quite strenuous and lengthy. The screening process typically takes between eighteen and twenty-four months, [31] during which time the candidate remains outside of the United States; and requires one to possess the recognized ‘status’ of a refugee as promulgated under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. [32] Under Article I of the Convention, refugees are defined as persons outside their country of origin or habitual residence, who have a well-founded fear of persecution in that country on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. [33]  Syrian refugees, are thus by definition under U.S. and international law, “persons who fled Syria in the face of a well-founded fear of prosecution by the Islamic State group, or al-Assad regime ... on account of their political opinions [or] religion ... and are unable to return due to such a fear of persecution.” [34]

 

            Here in the United States, “Syrian refugees already undergo more rigorous screening than anyone else allowed into the United States.”  [35] This enhanced scrutiny remains in place even though none of the “2,234 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States since October 1, 2010 have been arrested or removed on terrorism charges.” [36] For Syrians specifically, the Department of Homeland Security also conducts further “biological screening,” including fingerprinting and scans of the iris. [37] The screening process is divided into several discrete stages handled by various groups and agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services with multiple opportunities for a pending refugee to be rejected from resettlement in the United States. [38] James Comey, Former Director of the FBI, has stated that the practical effect of requiring additional scrutiny would make it “impossible” for the United States to accept Syrian refugees. [39] Thus, while rhetoric may portray the refugee resettlement process as weak or deficient, the process currently in place is significantly thorough.

 

III. Discrimination Against Refugee and Asylum Applicants In the United States

 

          The 1951 United Nations Convention explicitly requires member states to “apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.” [40] Therefore, discrimination or ‘preference’ on behalf of immigration officers, the United States Congress, or the President himself based on ethnic and national origin, country of origin, or religion is a violation of international law. [41] While the United States has a warm track record  of opening its doors to millions of immigrants seeking citizenship on their own will and accord; America’s track record for accepting those fleeing persecution is another story.

 

          Whether it was limiting Jewish refugees because of anti-Semitism influence during WWII; [42] blocking, detaining, and ultimately sending back to Central America, women and children fleeing violent gang and drug related wars between 2013-2016; [43] or today glorifying executive orders that halt and prohibit resettlement from the horrific conditions unfolding in Syria- something strangely goes awry. It’s quite odd. The spirit of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” poem sketched on the Statue of Liberty, reading “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .” dissipates into oblivion and instead hysteria ensues to prevent those very same people referred to her poem from seeking refuge. I’m talking about the rebukes from federal, state, and local level officials; town-hall meeting tears, prayers, and hysteria; flag toting, bumper sticker wearing; church summit; red hat slogan creating; and campaign promising “I vowel to protect you from them!” type awry. It’s strange. It’s scary; and it’s … well … deplorable.

 

           And while one cannot rely on their sentiments of immigration and refugee resettlement with consistency; one can rely on WHO experiences the brunt of such odd activity. Those fleeing persecution are likely black or brown; or of a religious minority. To be clear, national security and vetting procedures are of vital significance and of absolute necessity to prevent terrorism. However, the fear, rhetoric, and sense of urgency surrounding national security concerns are often the result of a larger underlying issue and that is unchecked racism and xenophobia. The United States has a problem. It sees black and brown refugees as terrorists or illegals impeding upon their job opportunities first, and as tortured, displaced individuals fleeing from violence last. These attitudes do not go unnoticed. They marginalize and alienate refugees and simultaneously inspire violence. As civilians who were clearly marginalized and alienated therefore re-settling, a continued life of isolation on basis of their faith or race is not healthy and it indeed stimulates, the one thing Americans fear most- radicalization. Therefore, rather than support a ban against Syrian refugees, it would behoove us to ease barriers to safeguard what dignity they have left, that was taken from them in war crimes committed by their own government. [44]

 

          This position was taken by former President Barack Obama who upon denouncing the growing Syrian displacement in November of 2015, announced that the United States would accept and resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2016 fiscal year. [45] A considerable increase from 2,174, the exact number of Syrian refugees the U.S. had admitted from 2012-2015; [46] and the polar opposite of President Trump’s recent indefinite ban. In response however approximately 31 governors (nearly 2/3 of ‘the free world’) denounced the President’s efforts, and declared that they would not allow Syrian Refugee placements in their states, [47] “not even orphans under the age of five.”  [48]

 

          The response of the Republican controlled House of Representatives was similar. The house passed the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015” which would require several government agencies to undertake additional investigative efforts before any individual Syrian resident may be admitted to the United States as a refugee.  [49] It did not pass in Senate. Former FBI Director James Comey said the SAFE Act "seeks to micromanage the process in a way that is counter-productive to national security, to our humanitarian obligation, and the overall ability to focus on Homeland Security" [50]

 

Conclusion

 

          The national security and safety interest of Americans are shared by everyone. Terrorism is a real, and with each horrific act in the U.S. and aboard lessons are learned that enable our intelligence agencies to issue guidance to the executive and legislative branches to prevent similar horrific acts from occurring again in the future. The recent xenophobic and misguided executive orders issued by President Trump have not only weaken our founding principles, they have potentially inspired violence abroad.  The United States is more than capable of managing our national security without sacrificing our American values, principles of inclusion, and leadership before the world as a non-discriminatory safe-haven. Closing our doors to vulnerable refugees on the basis on their nationality and religion not only subverts what we stand for, it neglects the livelihood and desired autonomy refugee and asylum seekers seek that can only be gained by admittance. Empathy shatters fear. The world cannot rebuke atrocities committed by ISIS and the al-Assad regime and at the same time deny war-deplaced Syrian refugees. To do so implies that their lives only matter as talking points and nothing more.  

 

 

 

 

Rolland Hampton is a 2L at Howard Law. He is originally from Chicago, IL, and graduated from Tuskegee University with a degree in Psychology. He is passionate about civil rights and intellectual property rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] J.D., 2018, Howard University School of Law; B.A., 2008, Tuskegee University.

 

 

[2] The Killing of Michael Brown: Missouri Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen Sparks Days of Protests, Democracy Now (Aug. 12, 2014), https://goo.gl/JoCcVh.

 

 

[3] Middle East Unrest: Three Killed at Protest in Syria, BBC News (Mar. 18, 2011), https://goo.gl/yK2HoJ.

 

 

[4] See Lucy Rodgers, et al., Syria: The Story of the Conflict, BBC News (Mar. 11, 2016), https://goo.gl/xbCZs1.

 

 

[5] See id.

 

 

[6] Middle East Unrest: Three Killed at Protest in Syria, supra note 3.

 

 

[7] Rodgers, supra note 4.

 

 

[8] See Kim Ghattas, Syria Unrest: ‘Bloodiest Day’ as troops fire on rallies, BBC News (April 22, 2011), https://goo.gl/d2cqBf.

 

 

[9] Id.

 

 

[10] Id.

 

 

[11] See P.J. Tobia, The Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since World War II, PBS (July 29, 2015 5:36 PM), https://goo.gl/M2ywMT.

 

 

[12] Population Total, The World Bank, (Last visited October, 4, 2017), https://goo.gl/QF41LF.

 

 

[13] Leda Hartman, Islamic Sectarianism: The Issues, 6 CQ Global Researcher 353, 355 (2012).

 

 

[14] Id. at 355.

 

 

[15] ?

 

 

[16] Rodgers, supra note 4.

 

 

[17] See Spencer Zifcak, The Responsibility to Protect After Libya and Syria, 13 Melb. J. Intl L. 59, 73 (2012).

 

 

[18] See Jeff Crisp et al., From Slow Boil to Breaking Point: A Real-Time Evaluation of Unhcr's Response to the Syrian Refugee Emergency (2013), https://goo.gl/TrS5hY.

 

 

[19] Rodgers, supra note 4.

 

 

[20] What is ‘Islamic State’?, BBC News (Dec. 2, 2015), https://goo.gl/Yn1Ct2.

 

 

[21] Id.

 

 

[22] See Syrian Army Carrying out “Major Military Operation” Against Key City, UN News Ctr. (Apr. 27, 2011), https://goo.gl/2b6biQ.

 

 

[23]Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, (2013), https://goo.gl/e47m3Z (Last accessed Oct. 4, 2017).

 

 

[24] Id.

 

 

[25] See, e.g., Report of the Indep. Int’l Comm’n of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (2013), A/HRC/23/58, https://goo.gl/p7M7k9 (“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and inhumane acts.”)

 

 

[26] Ved P. Nanda, The Future Under International Law of the Responsibility to Protect After Libya and Syria, 21 Mich. St. Int'l L. Rev. 1, 14-15 (2013).

 

 

[27] Jessica Durando, Nearly Half a Million Killed and Syria Civil War Isn’t Over, USA Today (Dec. 13, 2016 4:27 PM), https://goo.gl/yHK876.

 

 

[28] Id.

 

 

[29] Id.

 

 

[30]Id,

 

[31] Alex Altman, This Is How the Syrian Refugee Screening Process Works, Time (Nov. 17, 2015),

https://goo.gl/gKyFm4.

 

 

[32] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 19 U.S.T.S. 6259, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/about-us/background/4ec262df9/1951-convention-relating-status-refugeesits-1967-protocol.html.

 

 

[33] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 19 U.S.T. 6259, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, ch. 1, art. 1(A)(2).

 

 

[34] Christian Sundquist, Op-Ed: Despite Dark History of Exclusion, Laws Demand U.S. Accepts Refugees, Nat'l L. J., Nov. 30, 2015,

 

https://goo.gl/NhZB2k.

 

[35] Amy Pope, Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States, White House: What’s Happening (Nov. 20, 2015, 7:09 PM), https://goo.gl/sH5Jc8.

 

 

[36] See U.S. Department of State, Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees (Nov. 25, 2015), https://goo.gl/hHPLau.

 

 

[37] Altman, supra note 31.

 

 

[38] Pope, supra note 35.

 

 

[39] See Evan Perez, FBI Director James Comey Balks at Refugee Legislation, CNN (Nov. 19, 2015, 1:51 PM), https://goo.gl/Z2ESjf.

 

 

 

[40] G.A. Res. 429 (V), Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, (Dec. 14, 1950), https://goo.gl/dfoTfw.

 

 

[41] United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, Basic Human Rights Reference Guide: Security Infrastructure (Mar. 2014), https://goo.gl/3fgj7J.

 

 

[42] Adam Geller, Refugee Refusal Today Compared, Contrasted to That of WWII, Assoc. Press (Nov. 20, 2015), https://goo.gl/EQfyp9.

 

 

[43] Silva Mathema, They Are Refugees: An Increasing Number of People Are Fleeing Violence in the Northern Triangle, Ctr. For Am. Progress (Feb. 24, 2016, 12:35 PM), https://goo.gl/A8WtNh.

For the number of asylum applications in a given year, sorted by country of origin and asylum application, see United Nations High Comm'r For Refugees, Population Statistics Database, https://goo.gl/6orwqo; United Nations High Comm'r for Refugees, Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection (2014), https://goo.gl/5iMYyF; United Nations High Comm'r for Refugees, Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico (2015) [hereinafter Women on the Run], https://goo.gl/WM76Pc.

 

 

[44] Rodgers, supra note 4.

 

 

[45] Amy Pope, How We're Welcoming Syrian Refugees While Ensuring Our Safety, White House: What's Happening (Nov. 17, 2015, 3:16 PM), https://goo.gl/pVXHQ4.

 

 

[46] Lauren Gambino, et al., Syrian Refugees in America: Separating Fact From Fiction in the Debate, Guardian (Nov. 19, 2015, 2:21 PM), https://goo.gl/M2mEaj.

 

 

[47] Kyle Blain, More Than Half of US Governors Say Syrian Refugees Not Welcome Now, Buzzfeed (Nov. 16, 2015, 11:52PM), https://goo.gl/Wr8198.

 

 

[48] Chris Christie- New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, The Killing of Michael Brown, supra note 2.

 

 

[49] See American SAFE Act of 2015, H.R. 4038, 114th Cong. (2015).

 

 

[50] Perez, supra note 39.

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