Every year, at least 500,000 people worldwide seek asylum.
Asylum seekers have existed since the time countries came into
existence. In fact, the word "asylum" traces its roots
to ancient Greece, where it described physical locations where
criminals could not be beaten or abused. As the half a million
cases filed each year show, the problem that existed in antiquity
is still very much with us today. One such case is that of Yusuf
Mohamed. Yusuf fled Somalia in 1991 when that country disintegrated
into a violent clan-based civil war. Without a government to prevent
widespread human rights abuses, armed clans persecuted Yusuf and
others like him because of his clan's perceived prosperity. After
witnessing the cold-blooded beating and execution of his father
just outside his house—and narrowly escaping death himself—Yusuf
fled to Kenya along with hundreds of thousands of other Somalis.
The Kenyan government could not offer refuge to Yusuf, his young
bride, and their one year old son. After years in limbo, the family
split up to seek asylum in the West. Yusuf made it to Chicago,
his wife and son to London. Yusuf's story is repeated more than
500,000 times a year. Ethnic violence in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq,
and Rwanda continues to threaten millions of innocents. Repressive
family planning policies in China force young women to flee just
to have more than one child. Religious persecution continues in
India, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Union. Repression of political
expression occurs in many parts of the world. Some of the worst
conditions arise against a backdrop of civil war. The destruction
of infrastructure leaves millions homeless and penniless. By the
time many asylum seekers reach safe shores, they have literally
no resources. They generally do not speak the language of their
place of refuge. And they are often desperately poor. Even worse,
new policies in some countries keep them destitute for extended
periods of time. Yusuf, for instance, could not work for six months
after entering the United States. The problem recognized in ancient
Greece has global significance today. In the early 1950's, many
of the world's nations addressed the problem by signing the 1951
Geneva Convention. That treaty requires countries to grant refugee
status to individuals who establish "a well-founded fear
of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political
opinions or membership of a particular social group." More
than 500,000 people seek such protection each year.
Legal Needs of Asylum
Seekers: Asylum seekers need lawyers.
It is hard to imagine a group of people more in need of lawyers
than asylum seekers. Many cannot read in any language and virtually
none speaks the language of the country in which they seek safety.
Even if an applicant can read and speak the native tongue, he
or she is typically fleeing a country where due process either
does not exist at all or is a facade. Very few asylum seekers
have any appreciation for the complexities of presenting a case
in court. It is also hard to imagine a group of people less likely
to get sound legal advice. In most countries, including the United
States, applicants have no right to counsel. They are left to
their own devices to find and pay for legal representation. Not
surprisingly, many applicants fail to retain any counsel at all,
and they do so at their peril. Representation by competent counsel
makes the difference between winning and losing. While overall
only about 20% of all asylum applicants ultimately receive asylum,
those with a lawyer win as often as 80% of the time. The 80% success
rates are obtained by many non-profit organizations that locate,
train, and support lawyers willing to represent asylum seekers
without pay. In the United States, these organizations include
the Midwest Immigrant Rights Center, the Lawyer's Committee for
International Human Rights, Minnesota Advocates, Washington Lawyers'
Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Florida Immigrant
Advocacy Center, and ProBAR: The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation
Project, among others. While these groups have had tremendous
success matching lawyers with asylum seekers, they are only able
to represent a fraction of the potential asylum clients. Anything
that makes the lawyer's job easier could have a dramatic effect
on the number of cases successfully handled each year. When analyzing
the need for legal representation for asylum seekers, it is important
to remember that the stakes in asylum cases are enormous. If a
case is lost, the applicant usually faces deportation back to
her country of origin—the very place from which she is fleeing.
In many cases, asylum is a life or death decision. In all cases,
it will profoundly affect the course of an applicant's life. When
it is granted, asylum can lead to safety, liberty, and prosperity.
When it is denied, it can lead to danger and despair.
Lawyers Asylum lawyers need information.
Asylum lawyers face two challenges: – they need to learn
both the substantive and procedural aspects of asylum law; and – they
need to identify and obtain evidence that shows their client is
telling the truth. While these challenges might arise in other
cases, they are especially difficult in asylum cases. Asylum clients
often cannot afford to pay for experienced legal representation
and the core documents that support a case are literally a world
away. Yusuf's case is instructive. Despite the brutality he and
his family suffered, Yusuf's case might have come down to little
more than the believability of his story. Yusuf, however, was
fortunate. First, he learned the name of an experienced asylum
attorney who would help him for free. Then, through happenstance,
Yusuf's attorney was able to collect key evidence that supported
Yusuf's case. Perhaps the most important document in Yusuf's case
was a letter. That letter, from the United Nations High Commissioner
on Refugees to the United States Embassy in Kenya, detailed the
persecution Yusuf's clan had suffered in Somali and confirmed
that members of his clan could not be sent back to Somalia. Instead,
they had to be resettled to a third country under "priority
one" status. It was the existence of that letter—and
the haphazard way that Yusuf's lawyers obtained it—that
led to the creation of asylumlaw.org. Incredible as it may sound,
unless a central database is established, cases like Yusuf's will
continue to turn on sheer luck rather than on the facts. The facts—as
demonstrated by the letter—suggest that virtually no member
of Yusuf's clan should be forced to return to Somalia. But the
only way currently for lawyers to learn about and use the letter
is by blind luck. It is not difficult to see that the current
haphazard system literally fails in almost every case, even the
ones lawyers manage to win. Why? Because no lawyer today can draw
on the extensive research that takes place worldwide in asylum
cases. There simply is no mechanism allowing a German lawyer to
access the key documents uncovered by a lawyer in San Francisco.
This means that every case is weaker than it should be if lawyers
could simply access the vast amount of information that their
counterparts have stumbled across. Every case could be made stronger
if a central database existed that, for the first time, overcame
geographic and language barriers that inhibit the free flow of
crucial documents. That is what asylumlaw.org aims to do.
Solution Asylum standards and information are borderless.
The test for asylum is, for the most part, the same throughout
the world. According to Article 1A of the Geneva Convention, "The
determining factor for granting refugee status in accordance with
the Geneva Convention is the existence of a well-founded fear
of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political
opinions or membership of a particular social group." With
minor local variations, an asylum applicant must meet the same
test regardless of where her claim is filed. In the United States,
the test is articulated as a "well-founded fear of persecution" for
certain traits or activities should she return to her home country.
The same test is applied in most of the other eleven countries
that absorb most of the world's asylum seekers: Australia, Austria,
Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden,
Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The kind of material needed
to corroborate an asylum claim is also the same regardless of
where the claim is filed. In any given year, the majority of people
granted asylum come from a handful of countries. In 1996, for
instance, over two-thirds of those granted asylum originated from
only 12 countries: Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran,
Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, the former Soviet Union, and the former
Yugoslavia. Because two asylum clients from the same country can
rely on similar supporting evidence, applicants in any country
would benefit from widespread availability of the key documents.
Lawyers know this. Today they address the issue through the haphazard
distribution of key documents. Some applicants are lucky enough
for the present system to work. Others are not. Deliberate and
organized distribution would change everything, not just in the
United States, but around the world.
Implementation Leveraging the Internet to improve the way asylum lawyers
Before widespread access to the internet emerged, there simply
was no efficient way for documents in asylum cases to be collected,
sorted, and disseminated. The last few years have dramatically
changed this. Today, it is possible to send documents electronically
around the world both instantaneously and virtually for free.
This development means that, for the first time, an impressive
and timely library of supporting documents can be quickly and
efficiently assembled. That is precisely what asylumlaw.org aims
to do. Here's how the system will work. Lawyers working on asylum
cases around the world will share the applications and supporting
documentation they collect with lawyers at asylumlaw.org. The
asylumlaw.org lawyers will fact check the information and remove
references that might reveal the identity of the applicant. Any
information not already on the site will be posted under the appropriate
country of origin and basis for asylum. With each passing case,
a lawyer with a new client would begin with all of the collective
thinking and document collection from other lawyers' efforts around
the world. A companion piece of the site will collect and organize
the law that applies in each country of refuge. Lawyers will be
able to go to one centralized source to learn everything they
need to know about a case. Step-by-step guides and primary sources
will be useful to both novice and seasoned asylum attorneys. And
something new will also emerge. For the first time, it will be
easy for lawyers in one country to learn about the law of another
country. This is often critical in cases where an applicant is
not eligible to stay in one country but might qualify for asylum
elsewhere. As the process evolves, lawyers would not only get
information faster, they will get better information. And they
can get it anywhere in the world that has access to the internet.
asylumlaw.org has one primary objective: helping
lawyers around the world make the strongest case they can.
We do this by:
1. Increasing the number of asylum cases that are handled by
volunteer attorneys by decreasing the amount of time each case
2. Increasing the number of successful asylum cases by increasing
the number of supporting documents that are accessible—and therefore
submitted—in each case.
3. Raising the quality of asylum applications by providing ready access
to model applications prepared by leading experts.
4. Facilitating international cooperation among attorneys handling asylum
cases from the same countries of origin.
5. Educating novice asylum attorneys on the nuances of particular cases.