In Harm’s Way
How U.S. Policy for Handling Migrants Violates International Criminal Law—As Well as Our Own
Imagine you’re an immigrant who fled danger to seek asylum in the United States after escaping torture and beatings in your own country. Arriving here, you make your case, but instead of proceeding through a careful review process, you’re interviewed by an asylum officer completely unfamiliar with the dynamics of your situation and designated for speedy deportation back to your place of origin, where your life may still be in danger. That’s the story of Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, a Sri Lankan asylum seeker whose case we’ll explore in more detail below. But his story is one of many thousands unfolding across the United States, and, now more than ever, these stories are going untold — or getting cut off before they can develop.
In fact, United States’ policies and practices for handling migrants and in particular refugees often endanger those people and breach international laws, which we have ratified. To remedy these violations, U.S. policy should be adjusted to align with international law, but individuals responsible for enabling these policies should also be tried as criminals under the same laws. To determine who these individuals are and how they can be brought to justice, we can begin by examining which laws the United States has agreed to and how they are being broken.
To consider the treatment of refugees in particular, we first have to determine who qualifies as one. Fortunately, not only can we refer to a definition of “refugee” which maps to international law, but the United States has also agreed to that definition.
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees originally established a detailed definition of “refugee” for the purposes of international law. According to Article 1(A)(2) of the Convention, a refugee is someone who meets the following criteria:
- Has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality”
- Belongs to “a particular social group or political opinion”
- “Is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the…