Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Refugee MP loses citizenship, resigns seat.

A Somali refugee who was elected to the Dutch parliament and attracted global notice as a critic of Islamic fundamentalism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has resigned her parliamentary seat following revelations that she lied about her past when she applied for asylum in the Netherlands in 1992. Hirsi Ali, who initially claimed that she had fled directly to the Netherlands from Somalia to escape an arranged marriage, now admits that she left Somalia as a child and lived in Kenya for several years and spent time in Germany before her arrival in the Netherlands. Hirsi Ali also acknowledges that she falsified her name and birthdate on her asylum application in an effort to obscure her identity and prevent her family from discovering her whereabouts. Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk moved to revoke Hirsi Ali's Dutch citizenship following the revelations, leading her parliamentary colleagues to file two motions urging Verdonk to reconsider the move.

While Minister Verdonk's decision has been met with protest, no one denies that Hirsi Ali broke the law when she lied on her asylum application. As controversy continues to swirl, I hope the reasons why she lied are not ignored. Working with refugees in San Jose and Windsor, I got a vivid sense of the pressures that can compel some refugee claimants to embroider their personal stories in an effort to strengthen their applications for asylum. No one really chooses to become a refugee, for a refugee is a person who has been deprived of a meaningful sense of choice - a refugee is a person who, for reasons beyond his or her control, has permanently lost the ability to live securely in their own country and culture. To become a refugee is to lose one's natural sense of identity and to be forced to reconstruct one's life in an alien environment. On the basis of my experience, I believe that very few refugees lie in their claims. Nonetheless, in an effort to persuade government examiners and judges that their fears of persecution are well-founded, refugees may change some facts without altering the substance of their claims. They do so because they genuinely - and, typically, quite credibly - believe that terrible things may happen to them if they return home.

To protect their own lives - and often the lives of their loved ones - some refugees will lie if they believe that doing so will improve their chances of being granted asylum. As the Hirsi Ali case shows, getting caught in the lie can have devastating consequences. Therefore, those who help guide refugee claimants through the asylum process have to be very forthright with their clients about the need for honest and accurate reporting. At the same time, it's important to recognize the sense of fear and desperation that can cause the temptation to lie. In my work with refugee claimants, at times I felt tempted to harshly judge clients whose truthfulness seemed suspect. I came to realize, however, that it wasn't my place to judge - the government board hearing refugee claims could do that well enough on its own. Unable to rule on the fate of the needy human beings before me, all I could do was try to help them navigate the system and show them the mercy and compassion that had been denied to them in the countries they had come from. As I read news reports on the controversy surrounding Ayaan Hirsi Ali's asylum application and citizenship status, I can't help but be reminded of this valuable lesson. AMDG.


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