A recent report from Ireland found that almost two thirds of asylum seekers who claimed to be from Somalia were lying. The investigation found that the “Somalis” were from other countries, such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Yemen. Apparently, some of the asylum seekers were found out based on language or a lack thereof; others had previously applied for visas to the UK using different nationalities. There may be some reason to doubt whether these techniques for outing “Somalis” are valid. For example, some Somali nationals may have been refugees for many years, raised in other countries without knowledge of Somali languages. Others may have used false passports from other countries to travel to Europe. Nevertheless, the high percentage of cases that are likely fraudulent presents a problem for the “system” and for those who represent asylum seekers.
Of course, the problem is not confined to Europe. In 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia issued a cable (I have not been able to find it online) entitled: Report on fraud trends in Ethiopian asylee claims: A guide for DHS adjudicators. The cable talks about “following to join” cases where an alien has been granted asylum in the United States and has filed a form I-730 for his relatives to join him in the U.S. From August 2005 to May 2006, the Embassy reviewed 1,449 following-to-join cases, which represented 288 asylum grants in the United States. The Embassy writes that ”Almost every [following-to-join] interview at Post uncovers information that calls into question the petitioner’s original claim.” In addition, the Embassy has found that “more than 75 percent of documents investigated were fraudulent” and consular officers “suspect that the fraud rate is well over 50 percent.” Again, there may be problems with the Embassy’s methods of investigating fraud, but the cable certainly presents evidence of a problem.
The U.S. Embassy in Cameroon has issued a cable similar to the Ethiopian cable. It states that asylum claims have increased dramatically since 1992. The Embassy knows of no corresponding increase in political problems, though the economy has gotten worse, leading to the conclusion that many asylum seekers are economic migrants (the State Department Report on Human Rights conflicts somewhat with this view, listing human rights abuses such as torture, arbitrary arrest, and life-threatening prison conditions). The Embassy also reports that Cameroonians have been detained entering the United States with all sorts of fake documents that could be used to create fraudulent asylum claims. Relatives following to join frequently know nothing about the asylees’ political activities or persecution. As a result of this fraud, non-immigrant visa refusal rates have increased from 35% in 2001 to 60% in 2004. Further, the Embassy complains that fraudulent applications and following-to-join applications have dramatically increased its workload. It recommends that Cameroonian asylum cases be viewed skeptically.
Other evidence is more anecdotal. A recent report from the blogosphere–I cannot vouch for the report’s credibility–indicates that an Ethiopian diplomat at the Embassy in Washington, DC quit his job, claimed asylum, and then returned to work at the Embassy as a public relations officer. He was even listed on the Embassy website. The report states that the diplomat’s asylum claim was false, and urged the U.S. government and the Ethiopian government to investigate.
The problem of fraud presents a dilemma for attorneys who specialize in asylum and a challenge to the “system.”
Attorneys who specialize in asylum have generally entered the field to assist those who genuinely fear persecution (we certainly don’t specialize in asylum for the money!), not to help facilitate fraud. However, for the most part, we can’t know which cases are genuine and which are not, and it’s sometimes dangerous to judge. I remember one Ethiopian woman whose case I doubted. We won, and a few months later she returned to my office and asked whether I could help her find a doctor. Ever since her detention and beating, she said, she had been suffering pain on one side of her body. Although I don’t know whether this was true or not, she had no reason to lie. Experiences like this make me cautious about judging my client’s veracity. Instead, it’s better to represent my clients to the best of my ability and to let the Immigration Judge decide the case.
The problem of fraud also presents a challenge to the legal system. Our country has–I think quite properly–taken a generous approach to asylum. We would rather allow some fraudulent cases to succeed than turn away genuine asylum seekers. Of course, if fraud becomes too pervasive, it might cause us to re-consider how we evaluate asylum claims. The Australia government recently initiated a six-month freeze on processing asylum applications filed by Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrive by sea. The system was becoming overwhelmed by applicants, and the government reacted with a heavy hand. Such a broad brush approach is questionable under international law, and would obviously affect legitimate and illegitimate asylum seekers.
So what can be done to reduce fraudulent asylum claims?
The U.S. Embassy in Cameroon suggests that DHS check asylum applications with records obtained at the Embassy to determine whether family members listed on the asylum form were also mentioned at the Embassy. This would avoid the problem of asylum seekers ”adding” family members in order to bring them to the U.S. after they win asylum. If “false family members” could not follow to join, the incentive for seeking asylum might be reduced.
Also, more generally, documented information at the Embassy could be compared with information in the asylum application. Theoretically, this should happen already, but DHS has limited resources, and this method seems to have limited value, as most biographical information is consistent between the Embassy and the asylum application.
In many cases, friends and relatives in the home country submit letters in support of an applicant’s claim. Such people could be called to the Embassy for questioning. It is more difficult to create a fraudulent case if people in the home country are required to testify about the claimed persecution. Of course, this would have to be done while maintaining confidentiality, but this should be possible given that such people already know about the asylum claim (having written letters in support of the claim).
Another option is to identify attorneys and notarios who prepare claims deemed suspicious. Such people should be investigated and, if evidence of fraud is uncovered, prosecuted. This, to me, is the easiest and most effective solution. The DHS attorneys generally know who is producing and/or facilitating fraudulent claims. Why not send an undercover investigator posing as a client to the suspected attorney? If the attorney suggests that the “client” engage in fraud, the attorney could be charged with a crime (that is exactly what happened to a Washington State couple who helped create fraudulent asylum cases). Such tactics would reduce fraud by eliminating the purveyors of fraud and by deterring others who might engage in such practices.
The trick is to reduce fraud without preventing legitimate asylum seekers from gaining protection.