Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Grounds for Asylum

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Grounds for Asylum

Article excerpt

After two years in jail, Fauziya Kasinga had her day in US court. Recently, the Board of Immigration Appeals heard her request for political asylum. The board also considered, for the first time, whether female genital mutilation (FGM) constitutes persecution, to qualify a potential victim for refugee status as defined by the Refugee Act.

Ms. Kasinga fled her native Togo to escape an arranged marriage and the brutal tribal rite of FGM, estimated to have been inflicted on more than 85 million women worldwide. In the long struggle to ensure that women are treated fairly as individuals, this issue joins the right to vote, to be free from slavery and domestic violence, and to be treated as an equal at work.

But in Ms. Kasinga's case, an immigration judge ruled that she was not a "credible alien"and was not being singled out for persecution, since all females in Kasinga's tribe are subjected to the same treatment.

On the contrary, Kasinga does have a strong case, and she should be granted asylum. By law, applicants can win asylum in the US if they are found to have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Kasinga's lawyers argue that she is part of such a social group and are pressing for a legal framework that would allow the threat she faces to be grounds for asylum in carefully defined circumstances.

CRITICS worry that opening the door to victims of FGM will, in fact, release the floodgates of asylum-seekers. Yet in Canada, the first country to make the threat of such mutilation grounds for granting refugee status, only a few women have sought protection. Immigration officials say most females under threat in their native countries are too young and do not have the financial wherewithal to flee.

Guidelines proposed by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service would also limit the number of such refugees. In a legal brief, the immigration service has asked the board of appeals to rule that fear of FGM could justify asylum - but only for those women who would be forced into the most extreme forms of it if sent home. That would include Kasinga, but exclude those who endured the practice as young girls or those subjected only "to ostracism or economic pressure" for refusing to comply. …

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