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Opinion

US must honor its commitment to Iraqi and other refugees

US asylum seekers and immigrants are allowed access to legal counsel, but refugees are not. Allowing legal advocates to assist refugees would improve the refugee resettlement process immediately and tangibly – for both refugees and US officials.

By Michelle Mangan and Dana Montalto / December 21, 2011

Iraqi refugee Ali Jassim Mohammad at his brother's home in Baghdad. He lost his leg three days after he came back to get documents to maintain his refugee status in Sweden.

Jane Arraf/The Christian Science Monitor

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New Haven, Conn.

By the time Mohammed* sat down in front of a US government official in 2008, he had lived through war, escaped persecution, and survived a brutal kidnapping. But he didn’t know the many challenges that lay ahead.

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Mohammed is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria with his wife and four children. Seeking a more stable home in the United States, he began the application process for resettlement three years ago. Mohammed tried his best to prepare his case, diligently collecting photographs of the injuries he sustained in Iraq and readying himself to discuss the persecution he had faced. Yet his interview with the US government caught him off guard.

Since his kidnapping, Mohammed has had trouble remembering dates and small details. When asked to recall a date during his interview, he turned to his wife to help jog his memory. The interviewer immediately ordered her out of the room. Distressed, Mohammed couldn’t answer many of the interviewer’s questions. Months later, he received a single-page letter in a language he could not read with a checked box indicating he had been denied resettlement for “credibility reasons.”

IN PICTURES: Refugees in America

Unfortunately, Mohammed’s case is not exceptional. Refugees applying for resettlement to the United States face an unknown and complicated legal system. Applications are written in English, the legal standards are entirely foreign, and important documentation may be missing or difficult to obtain for refugees who have fled their countries. Desperate for information, many applicants rely on rumors or advice from other refugees to help them prepare their applications. The complexities of this process have postponed, and often denied, many refugees like Mohammed the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. They instead remain living in unstable situations – as Mohammed is, in Syria.

The denial of a right to counsel lies at the source of many of these problems. The US does not fully recognize the right of refugees to have counsel represent them. Some government agencies refuse to communicate with counsel at all, and all agencies bar counsel from attending interviews. Without legal guidance, many worthy applicants are rejected.

The assistance of legal advocates would improve the refugee resettlement process immediately and tangibly – for both refugees and US officials. A legal advocate could orient applicants to the resettlement process, advise them of the expected timeline, aid them in obtaining proper documentation, and prepare them to answer sensitive questions during interviews. Counsel could also attend interviews to ensure that interviewers follow fair procedure.

Allowing refugees access to counsel would also save the government time and money. Currently, US officials must explain the resettlement process to refugees, inform applicants when they haven’t supplied proper documentation, and respond to numerous case-status requests. An advocate would help applicants collect documents and submit them in an organized way, present the refugee’s claim more coherently, ensure refugees are prepared for interviews, and streamline follow-up requests.

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