Case tests US asylum for foreign women

A Turkish mother in the Boston area fears her husband will abuse her if she returns.

When the Pilgrims left their first bootprints on the soil of New England, they established an American ideal that continues to this day: that those who are persecuted in their homelands could find safety on these shores.

From religious leaders to Nobel laureates, refugees have for centuries seen the United States as a haven from hatred against race, nationality, faith, or political doctrine.

Today, a young Turkish mother, who says she has been battered and cannot return home for fear of further injury or even death, is fighting to find a place for women like herself in America's protective embrace.

The case comes at a crucial time. Not only are dozens of similar claims coming before immigration officials nationwide, but administrators in Washington are also for the first time drafting regulations to govern gender-based pleas for asylum.

At issue is the fundamental definition of what asylum should be. To some, such cases, while unfortunate, are merely domestic disputes writ large - not state matters. To others, these claims strike at the heart of why nations offer asylum - protection from harm.

Now, as America decides what it will do with women who say they are being punished simply for being women, each case will provide an important way point in this emerging area of international jurisprudence.

"Our law is at a crossroads," says Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York.

The case of the Turkish woman here in the Boston area is typical of others across the US. Using the false name Meral so her husband cannot find her, the mother says that in seven years of marriage, her husband has beaten and intimidated her - allegations she supports with hospital records and affidavits from people who said they saw instances of abuse. The husband, who remains in Turkey, has denied the charges.

What could happen

She fears that if she is sent back to Turkey, she could be abused further or even killed. She knows of young girls, for instance, who have been murdered by their fathers or brothers when it was discovered that they were no longer virgins. By fleeing Turkey, she says, she has automatically become an adulteress.

"I am a shame to my family," she says over the phone in a thin voice more reminiscent of a college coed than a mother of two.

Already, she says, her family has betrayed her. After she came to America in 1999, an uncle promised to protect her from her husband and help her file for divorce if she came back. Shortly before she was to get on a plane, she learned through a series of correspondences that her husband would be waiting at the airport when she arrived.

Considering he is a professor with connections to Turkey's influential military, she worries that no place in her home country would be safe. "He could have me put in prison, or hire someone to kill me, or put me in a mental hospital," she says.

For now, Meral is waiting. Her lawyer filed an asylum request in October, hoping that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would set up a hearing within 45 days - as is normal procedure. But she hasn't heard a word yet.

The INS had no comment on this case. Experts suggest that one factor in the delay could be the uncertainty that has surrounded this issue recently.

Indeed, gender-based asylum claims are still in their infancy. One of the landmark decisions

came only five years ago and remains unsettled. In 1996, a woman was granted asylum to protect her from her husband in Guatemala. After an appeal, the case in 1999 was overturned, seemingly voiding any claims related to spousal abuse.

Then, in one of her final acts as attorney general this January, Janet Reno vacated the 1999 decision and decreed that the case be reconsidered after the INS created new rules for gender-based asylum claims.

Until those are released - no time frame has been given - claims like Meral's are shrouded in doubt.

"This has left us in a bit of limbo," says Ms. Young.

Despite this, some cases have gone forward, and these have become all the more important. "Whatever comes out now will be a signal as to how decisionmakers will decide cases [like this]," says Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in San Francisco.

Why some people object

For their part, critics hope those decisionmakers set a high standard for asylum-seekers. To them, the current spate of claims roams far from the reasons for which asylum was created.

Regulations "were meant to codify certain principles and international obligations to protect people from state action," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in Washington. "The line has been blurred so that there's no limit to who can be included in these claims."

Like many critics, he sees asylum in strict terms: providing a haven for someone threatened by a government so they can work to improve their homeland from abroad and eventually return. The current trends in asylum law, he says, amount to backdoor immigration.

So far, data indicate that even the most liberal interpretation of asylum law would not vastly increase the number of refugees entering the US. In Canada, which grants asylum in instances of abuse, such claims make up only 2 percent of the caseload.

Yet there is a clear sense among people on both sides of the issue that - no matter which direction the INS goes - the principles governing American asylum are slowly changing. And Meral's case is evidence of that.

"The culture of asylum offices has changed dramatically over the past 10 years," says Nancy Kelly of Greater Boston Legal Services. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't have even thought about presenting this case."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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