US to round up all Muslim and Arab asylum-seekers

Independent (England), Mar. 19, 2003
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

The United States has ordered the detention of all political asylum-seekers from a long list of Arab and Muslim countries, infuriating immigrant advocates who say it violates international human rights law.

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The Department of Homeland Security announced the policy shift as part of its tightening of security in anticipation of a war with Iraq, codenamed Operation Liberty Shield. “Asylum applications from nations where al-Qa’ida, al-Qa’ida sympathisers and other terrorist groups are known to have operated will be detained for the duration of their processing period,” the department said on Monday night. It described the initiative as temporary, “reasonable and prudent”.

Department officials told reporters the order would affect nationals from more than 30 countries, including Iraq and – in contrast to previous government orders requiring immigrants to register with the authorities – such US allies as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The measure was denounced by human rights groups as discriminatory and counter-productive. They argued that anyone who wished harm against the United States would not voluntarily expose themselves by applying for asylum. Targeting asylum-seekers, they said, was “irrational” and “ridiculous”. In a country founded by immigrants, it carried unfortunate historical echoes of the mass internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Alison Parker, head of the refugee programme for Human Rights Watch, said any detention order that did not consider each applicant’s case on its merits would be a violation of international law. “Our concern is that anyone who is detained should have an individualised hearing as to whether that detention is necessary, conducted by an impartial adjudicator. Such an assessment should not be applied across the board to an entire nationality,” she said.

Asked whether the government had made provision for individual hearings, she added: “It sure doesn’t sound like it.”

Ms Parker said locking up asylum-seekers for security reasons would send the wrong message about the nature of people fleeing persecution, including Iraqis fleeing from Saddam Hussein. “It’s a sweeping generalisation of who they are and a very unfortunate one … They are not terrorists, they are not security risks. They should be protected.”

Accusations of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination were heightened by the launch of a new police hunt for potential terror suspects across the United States that is focusing on mosques and Arab Americans, especially Iraqis.

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