Refugees Seeking Asylum in Europe Rising

Shukri Sindi still remembers the time when, in the dead of a moonless Iraqi night, he and his nine siblings struggled into their clothes and left home for the Turkish border.

Home was the town of Zakho in Iraq, where the Sindis lived along with several Christian and Muslim families.

But the Sindis were Kurds, and as the rumors of Kurdish civilians being gassed grew stronger and more urgent, the Sindis fled to a refugee camp in Turkey where the next few years were spent in wretched conditions.

In 1994, the Sindis were allowed to emigrate to the United States where Shukri is now pursuing a career in architecture after spending years in a camp where a pencil and paper were luxuries. The family has now saved enough to buy a home.

Sindi is one of millions fleeing economic and political oppression around the world.

Europe has seen one of the most dramatic increases in illegal immigrants and people seeking asylum. British authorities say 61 illegal immigrants were caught trying to enter the country in 1991. That number jumped to 16,000 last year.

Based on arrests and asylum applications across Europe, governments estimate some 700,000 people a year are using clandestine means to enter Western Europe.

Lucrative Business

Refugees from Iraq, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and India are increasingly making their way to Europe. The new wave of immigration hitting Europe in recent years is often fueled by a multibillion-dollar-a-year business of human traffickers.

In June, British customs officials found the bodies of 58 Chinese who had died of suffocation in the back of a truck on a cross-Channel ferry from Belgium to Dover.

The 58 Chinese immigrants were the cargo of the Snakeheads, a Chinese criminal group that offers to take villagers to the West — for a price — and once they have reached their destinations, often put them to work in sweatshops.

The Snakeheads is just one of the many Mafia groups, syndicates, scafistas and gangs grabbing a piece of the thriving trade, estimated to be $20 billion a year by Britain’s National Criminal Intelligence Service.

While Europe has seen a spiraling of the number of asylum-seekers arriving at its doors in recent years, the United States, long the destination of the world’s hungry, huddled masses, has actually seen a decline in the number of people seeking political asylum.

In 1993 for instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Service received 127,129 applications for political asylum, 15 percent of which, were approved. In contrast, 1999 saw 41,377 applications and the approval rate was 38 percent.

U.S. Tightens Asylum Policy

Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman, puts the declining numbers of political asylum applications coupled with increasing approval rates, down to reform in asylum legislation.

In 1995, the INS established an Asylum Officer’s Corps to handle political asylum cases ‘expeditiously.’ Before this, cases were handled by adjudicators, a process often lasting years, due to severe backlogs. Applicants received employment authorization permits to tide them over the waiting period.

Under the new system, work permits are only given if the process stretches over six months. A beefed up Asylum Officer Corps now says cases filed after 1995 typically take around two months to process, effectively blocking the work permit carrot the INS believed was the cause of numerous fraudulent applications.

But Bill Frelick, international policy director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees believes changing political climates have also played a role. “We are seeing a less volatile hemisphere in terms of civil wars and persecution after Aristide’s return to power [in Haiti]. The ending of civil wars in Americas has resulted in fewer refugees leaving home.”

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a military coup eight months after taking the presidency in 1991 and then was restored by a U.S.-led invasion force three years later.

Fewer Fresh Off the Boat

The political situation in a number of Central American countries has improved in the past decade. After 12 years of a bloody civil war in El Salvador, a peace agreement in 1992 helped the country hold free elections. After years of disturbances between the Leftist Sandinistas and U.S.-backed Contras, Nicaragua conducted elections in 1990. In Honduras, the powerful military formally ceded power in 1981 and its power has been shrinking ever since.

These changes have resulted in a drop in the number of immigrants making desperate dashes for the United States. “Most dramatic arrivals in the U.S. come from close-by,” said Frelick. “The 1980s saw the most dramatic cases of flotillas and boat people arriving, the landmark ones, of course, being the Mariel boat people and Haitians fleeing after Aristide was deposed. Cubans and Haitians still constitute the bulk of people arriving by sea.”

But while asylum seekers arriving on U.S. soil are allowed to fight deportation, those found on the seas can be turned back to their home countries. In general, Cubans who reach U.S. shores are allowed to remain.

By contrast, Europe is currently experiencing some of the more harrowing cases, similar to those that confronted the United States and other countries in previous decades.

There are also significant differences in the arrival patterns on the two continents. Frelick said most refugees arriving in Europe pass through several countries and were likely to be deported from border to border.

In the United States, asylum-seekers most often arrive at a U.S. port of entry, usually an airport. But under what the INS calls “expedited removal,” an immigration officer at the airport can immediately send an asylum-seeker back home.

Before 1996, an asylum-seeker could only be turned away by order of an immigration judge, and after being allowed to find legal counsel.

These rules do not apply to Cubans arriving on American soil. The 1966 U.S.-Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who reach American soil to apply for residency.

Immigration and Foreign Policy Links?

The problem, said William Monning, attorney and professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies in California, is that often, “immigration policy is an extension of U.S. foreign policy. People from Cuba and other communist countries have historically had an easier time than people from Central American countries where the United States is supporting the dictatorships they are fleeing.”

Strassberger denied that criticism. “We approve individuals who come forward and demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country based on nationality, race, religion, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. We see individual cases and judge them on merit.”

China accounts for one of the largest national groups applying for asylum in the United States; Somalia is at the top of the list. In 1999, 5,218 Chinese nationals applied for asylum, 24 percent of whom were approved. With 82 percent of applications approved, Afghans have the highest asylum approval rating in the United States.