Saturday, September 10, 2011

Famine-ravaged Somalia and the definition of "refugee"

Somalia, the east-African nation (if you can call it that) defined by clan warfare and a perpetual lawlessness, is currently facing a famine of Biblical proportions that the UN suggests could claim the lives of 750,000 people within just four months. Somalis have fled north into Kenya and other neighboring nations due to the instability in their country that has stymied efforts to supply food and medicine - but are these individuals "refugees" and would they be justified in their claims of asylum should they come to the United States?

As we all know, the UN definition of refugee and the US definition of asylum-seeker insist that individuals in each category must have a "well-founded fear of persecution" because of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Those fleeing famine, however - though certainly warranted in their fear - don't seem to fall under this definition. Lacking food doesn't seem to suggest intentional persecution by the government or another group, and none of the enumerated elements in the definition seem to encompass - at first glance, anyway, those who are going without food.

The situation is undeniably terrible, and no rational person would dispute the reasons that the Somali people have for leaving their country or, hypothetically, seeking to relocate in the United States. The questions about their classification as refugees and therefore as potential asylum-seekers throws into doubt the effectiveness of the definitions of those terms provided by the UN (and the US), rather than the validity of what the Somali people want for their future.

At the very least, I think this provides grounds for an interesting discussion about the refugee/asylum-seeker definitions with respect to the vast array of peoples that they are meant to apply to.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, especially in light of being in the process of learning the specific asylum laws. As you stated, clearly these people need to find somewhere else to go, as an estimated 750,000 people will die from starvation. What makes it an even more contentious issue is, then, considering how many people will flee the country. Theoretically, even more than 750,000 people will try to flee, as they do not want to die from famine. The question that the world community will have to consider is: How many people can we allow into our country, without experiencing exhausted resources. It seems that each country must ask itself this question, and thus bear part of the burden in trying to avoid this disaster.

Andrew B. said...

Yeah very good question chartran. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is how I understand it: once these people flee from their homes into another country, the UN can come in and declare them "refugees" and issue them refugee cards. The UN can establish camps and do the whole UN thing. And since they have "refugee" status, the US Attorney General can, at his discretion, offer asylum to as many as he would like. I think that's what we were talking about was happening in Nepal (or Bhutan?): the camps were getting shut down and the refugees absorbed into nations that can accept them.

In contrast, with the asylum cases we have, the people have not yet been declared refugees; they have to prove it, and THEN the AG can grant discretionary asylum. I think for these Somalian refugees (assuming the UN calls them refugees) they're already classified that way so it's up to the US to choose whether or not to grant asylum.

Of course, I'm just describing the status quo. The question chartran is getting at is, "What OUGHT be the case?" And for that I do not know.