Press Release

IACHR Calls on States to Protect Asylum Seekers and Refugees and Guarantee their Rights

June 21, 2016

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Washington, D.C.— In commemoration of World Refugee Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) would like to recognize the courage and determination shown by people who have been forced to flee their homes. The IACHR urges the Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) to adopt effective measures for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees and to guarantee their rights, taking into account that applicants for asylum tend to be in a particularly vulnerable situation due to the reasons they were forced to flee their countries.

One Central American asylum seeker explained his situation and that of his family in his own words: “The maras [gangs] set fire to my house because I couldn’t pay them the money they had demanded as a tax. A friend told me they had set fire to my house. I dropped everything and went running. Everything was in chaos. I went to find my wife and children because I thought they were inside. I still have marks on my arm from the burns I got. Then my wife arrived with the children. That made me very happy. We decided right then and there that we had to leave. We left one day at 3 in the morning so that they wouldn’t see us. We had to sleep out in the woods to hide from the people from Immigration. Then we arrived here at the shelter, and they’ve treated us very well. They informed us about our right to seek asylum.”

According to the Office of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at year-end 2015 there were 496,384 refugees in the countries of the Americas, and another 250,404 people in refugee-like situations, as well as 350,697 asylum seekers whose cases were still unresolved. The Commission observes with great concern the refugee crisis that has been going on in the countries of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—as well as Mexico in the last few years. At year-end 2010, these four countries were the countries of origin for 13,321 asylum seekers and 18,773 refugees. By the end of 2015, these same four countries were the countries of origin for 124,116 asylum seekers and 43,239 refugees. This means that from 2010 to 2015, the number of asylum seekers from these countries increased by 832 percent, while the number of refugees increased by 130 percent.

Although in recent years more and more people have been fleeing violence caused by criminal organizations such as drug cartels and gangs, as well as new forms of persecution, the rates of recognition of refugee status in the Americas are uneven. In some States in the region, the recognition rate is as high as 80 percent, while in others it is less than 1 percent. In this regard, the Commission urges the OAS Member States to adopt and implement appropriate and effective procedures for the determination of refugee status, considering that the goal is to protect people’s lives, integrity, and liberty.

Commissioner Enrique Gil Botero, the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, said: “The last few years have seen a progressive increase in the number of people who are forced to migrate from their homes. Many people flee to save their lives. The Commission calls on the States to adopt policies, laws, and any other measures that may be necessary for the situation of asylum seekers and refugees to be approached from a human rights perspective, one that effectively addresses the causes that lead to forced migration, and urges the States, in keeping with their human rights obligations, to guarantee the protection of asylum seekers, refugees, and their families.”

The countries in the region should recognize, in their legal systems, the concept of refugee contained in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, and adopt the necessary measures to comply with the commitments made in the 2014 Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action. Refugee status is a declaratory status that results from a person’s circumstances and therefore is not granted but rather recognized by the State. The purpose of the applicable procedures is to ensure that refugee status is recognized in every case in which it is justified.

Asylum seekers are often placed in immigration detention automatically following their entry into the country of refuge. The automatic and in many cases prolonged use of immigration detention re-victimizes asylum seekers. This, in turn, often leads them to abandon the procedures for the determination of refugee status. The IACHR reminds the States that they must not adopt measures that impose penalties on refugees on account of their illegal entry or presence. With regard to adults, immigration detention must be used as an exception, and States have the obligation to adopt alternative measures to detention. Moreover, States may not resort to immigration detention of children and their parents as a precautionary measure in immigration proceedings or procedures for the determination of refugee status.

A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 081/16