Monday, 9 May 2011

In Netherlands, 'Westernization' is now a reason for asylum (for some)

Sahar Hbrahim (centre)
By Paul Canning

The Dutch Conservative government has recently changed the criteria for one group of asylum seekers, thinking it had solved a political problem, only to raise the question of why they're not applying it to others.

Immigration and Asylum Minister Gerd Leers has agreed that some girls could not be returned to Afghanistan if they are 'too westernized'.

Fourteen year old Sahar Hbrahim from Friesland had been left after ten years without legal recourse to fight removal to Afghanistan. The minister had initially judged her story ‘not unique enough’ to allow her to stay at his ministerial discretion.

Then in January a court said that Leers had not explained sufficiently how Sahar was going to cope in Afghanistan - ‘westernised’ as she is. Unicef and many others have documented that girls’ lives in Afghanistan are far from easy and that corporal punishment is an everyday occurrence. Girls who have lived abroad are even worse off. They are habitually humiliated because they are ‘unclean’.

Leers remained adamant: Sahar had to go, but behind the scenes the minister was trying to find a way out. The foreign ministry was asked to investigate how safe it was for a ‘westernised’ girl to go to school in Afghanistan. They confirmed that life in Afghanistan for children like Sahar is hell. So Leers introduced a new kind of asylum seeker: the ‘westernised’ kind. And Sahar, the minister said, falls within that category and therefore she can stay.

But it remains unclear what else makes a ‘westernised asylum seeker’ a ‘true asylum seeker’.

According to Leers, you have to be a girl between about 10 and 18 years old, from Afghanistan, because the situation for girls there is uniquely awful. You have been trying for eight years to get legal status and your parents have done nothing to wilfully delay the process.

He says there are about four hundred girls like Sahar. He estimates that ‘no more than’ a few dozen of them will attain legal status. An MP from Leers party told the media that his party had ‘managed to limit the number’: the government could appear to be 'strict but just', job done.

But Leers’ balancing act has caused a new legal problem and a political one too, with the Dutch opposition asking: How do you ascertain objectively to what extent a girl has become westernised? And what about boys? Christians? Gays? And why just Afghanistan - girls that have lived abroad aren’t having an easy time of it in Iran.

Leers new rules are, they say, 'vague and arbitrary'.

Leers' answer is that for boys there's a "completely different situation" in Afghanistan than for girls. And for people whose faith or sexual orientation in the country of origin are likely to get into trouble, there is always 'an individual assessment'.

But the accusation of arbitrariness is far from over, and it will be interesting to see legally if 'westernisation' can have any role in LGBT asylum cases.

According to Sabine Jansen from the Dutch LGBT group COC, under Dutch asylum law, LGBT from Afghanistan are actually better off than girls.

They will not be told (as happens in a number of European countries) to 'go home and be discrete', that concept has not been used in the Netherlands for some time - whereas, previously, Afghan girls could be told 'go home and put on a burka'. Afghan gays, and those from Iraq, are classed as 'groups at risk' and this means that the evidential burden in their cases is much lower.

If these asylum seekers pass an individual examination with limited evidence, they will get refugee status.

Jansen says that the situation with Iranians is even easier:
"LGBTs from Iran only have to 'prove' that they are LGBTs from Iran."

"Although in practice it is a little more complicated than that - it is not clear what this low burden of proof consists of, and Iranian LGBTs who came out too late to the Dutch authorities or who committed crimes, still face problems (=rejections)."

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