Plight of female refugees gains attention, sympathy Rules may change for asylum seekers

September 27, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BOSTON -- One September night, the night of the 1992 military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a tall, slender girl limped through the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in a tattered nightgown. Then 16 years old, W. Louis had just been beaten and gang-raped in retaliation for her male cousin's pro-Aristide activities.

W. Louis and her cousin fled the country six weeks later by boat, spent five months at the American Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and were admitted to the United States to apply for political asylum. As a rape victim, she agreed to speak if she was identified only by her last name.

Her cousin, a student leader threatened with death, is typical of the thousands of men who seek asylum each year. But W. Louis, as a woman and a rape victim, is presenting a type of claim that until recently was seldom heard. Now 18 and a high school student in Boston, she is one of a growing number of women seeking asylum on the ground that they suffered different forms of political persecution because of their sex.

Immigration law has tended to ignore the plight of refugee women. Lawyers and immigration officers often follow their standard line of questioning, and the personal stories of the women never come out. Many judges and immigration officers treat rape and battery -- even at the hands of government officials -- as private acts. And many interpret a woman's transgression of social mores, the refusal of an Iranian woman to cover her head, for instance, as a wardrobe choice rather than political expression.

But change is now afoot. Even though many countries have grown less tolerant of refugees in general, international sympathy has grown for the traumas of women fleeing persecution. The rapes of Muslim and Croatian women in Bosnia have been portrayed worldwide as war crimes, not just sexual violence. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees has issued guidelines for evaluating women's applications for asylum, and Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has started granting asylum to women persecuted because of their sex.

In the United States, advocates for immigrants are using scores of test cases, involving rape, domestic violence and defiance of state restrictions on women's activities, to try to expand the grounds for granting asylum.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is also studying Canada's new policy to see if it should revamp its own handling of such cases, said Gregg A. Beyer, INS director of asylum.

Although some critics of the asylum system worry about opening the door to yet another category of applicants, Mr. Beyer said there would be no blanket admissions policies.

"There's always a fear that anything, even a new nationality or a new category like women or gay people, will open up the floodgates," he said.

"There's a perception that if a woman from a Muslim country got asylum, many might come thinking they're now all eligible. But they wouldn't be. It's case by case, individual by individual."

The test cases brought by immigrant advocates vary from that of a Honduran woman in New York City whom Honduran police repeatedly refused to protect from her severely abusive husband to that of an Iranian feminist in Boston, an artist who was forced to go underground in the early 1980s for painting women in nontraditional roles.

"It was a very hard period of my life," the Iranian artist, now an art teacher at a day care center, said in an interview.

The women's experiences in the courtroom vary, too. In San Francisco, a Salvadoran woman whose husband was an informer for the army asked for refuge in this country because she had been repeatedly gang-raped by guerrillas. During three hours of halting testimony, as she kept her face covered with her hands, the immigration judge clipped his fingernails, said Jonathan Melrod, an immigration lawyer who represented her. But in the end, her testimony was so compelling that the judge granted her asylum.

By law, political asylum is granted to an individual with a well-founded fear of persecution because of one of these five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or holding a political opinion.

vTC Some asylum experts say that most women's cases can be argued under the current legal framework -- that W. Louis, for instance, could be seen as belonging to a specific social group (Haitian women who suffer sexual retaliation for the political activities of their male relatives) or as possessing, by imputation, the political opinion of her cousin.

Still, many lawyers push for a more radical approach by adding "persecution because of sex" as a sixth ground for asylum.

"As it stands now, unless the rapist said to the woman, 'I'm raping you because you spoke out against the government,' it is unlikely a judge will find that she has been persecuted on account of her political opinion," said Robert Jobe, a San Francisco immigration lawyer.

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