Refugees Essay

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A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country because of fear of persecution. Under U.S. immigration law, a refugee is a person who has been or has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion and who is unable to avail himor herself of the protection of that country. This definition mirrors the definition of refugee adopted in the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951. This definition focuses on persecution as the defining characteristic and thus excludes people who have been displaced because of civil war, ethnic strife, any sort of natural disaster, or for economic reasons.

An asylee is a person who has shown that he or she meets the definition for refugee—meaning, he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five enumerated grounds—and has been provided asylum.

Asylum status and refugee status are closely related. Their major difference lies in where a person applies for asylum or refugee status. Applicants requesting refugee status do so outside the United States, while those seeking asylum status request it from within the United States. However, all people who are granted asylum must meet the definition of a refugee. Both refugees and asylees have the right to live and work indefinitely in the United States and to apply for lawful permanent residence after one year. Additionally, both refugees and asylees are eligible for certain assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. This assistance includes, among other things, cash and medical assistance, employment preparation and job placement, skills training, English language training, legal services, social adjustment, and aid for victims of torture.

Asylum law, international and national, has begun acknowledging that women often suffer unique persecution such as forced abortion and female genital mutilation and are more likely to experience certain forms of persecution such as rape and domestic violence. These types of cases are often referred to as gender-based asylum because the persecution is inflicted for reasons related, at least in part, to the victim’s gender.

Both the United Nations and the United States have issued guidelines for dealing with gender-based persecution and asylum, respectively. In 1991, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued its Guidelines on the Protection of Refuge Women. Four years later, the CIS (then INS) released guidelines for gender-related asylum claims.

One such notable asylum case is Matter of Kasinga. In a landmark decision, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) granted Fauziya Kasinga asylum. Kasinga had fled Togo, her country of origin, so as not to undergo female genital mutilation, a common practice in Togo from which the Togo Republic does not provide protection. Although Matter of Kasinga addresses asylum from a gendered lens, this remedy is limited and available to only a small percentage of women who face sexual abuse.

In another notable case, Matter of R-A-, Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman, suffered years of violence at the hands of her husband. Despite her repeated attempts to obtain government protection, the police and the courts refused to intervene. Alvarado eventually fled to the United States, where she sought and was granted asylum based on grounds of political opinion and membership in a particular social group. Her political opinion claim stated that her refusal to accept male domination was a political opinion protected under asylum law. Her social group claim was defined by the immigration judge as “women intimately involved with male companions, who believe that women are to live under male domination.” The BIA reversed the immigration judge’s decision and ordered Alvarado’s deportation.

In January 2001, then Attorney General Janet Reno overturned the BIA decision and asked them to issue a new decision in Alvarado’s case after the issuance of proposed Department of Justice regulations on the subject of gender asylum. Those regulations have not been finalized.


  1. Preda, M. F., Olavarria, C., & Orloff, L. (2005). Alternative forms of relief for battered immigrants and immigrant victims of crime: U visas and gender-based asylum. In Breaking barriers: A complete guide to legal rights and resources for battered immigrants. New York: Legal Momentum.

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