Ethiopian Refugees Help Catch Their Persecutors

by Jason Dzubow on October 23, 2013

in Asylees and Refugees, Human Rights, National Security

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In the Ethiopian-American community, at long last, the hunters have become the hunted. 

Members of the community have created a new website to share information and help bring to justice Ethiopian human rights abusers living in the United States. The founders of the website, called YaTewlid (meaning “The Generation”), are themselves torture survivors. They have been inspired by a few recent prosecutions of Ethiopian human rights abusers in the United States.

The most recent case involved a high-ranking prison guard during the time of the Red Terror in Ethiopia (1977-78). Earlier this month, Kefelgn Alemu Worku was convicted of immigration fraud after he entered the U.S. using a false name and lied about his background. According to the Denver Post, those who witnessed against him testified that Mr. Kefelgn tortured and murdered hundreds of prisoners, including one witnesses’ best friend. Mr. Kefelgn faces up to 22 years in prison (for the fraud) and then deportation to Ethiopia where, presumably, he would not receive a friendly reception.

Kefelgn Alemu Worku proves that time wounds all heels.

Kefelgn Alemu Worku proves that time wounds all heels.

As an aside, Mr. Kefelgn’s case demonstrates why the various immigration forms ask questions like, Are you a persecutor? or Have you ever committed a crime? On their face, the questions seems silly–what self-respecting persecutor would admit that he was a persecutor? The U.S. government does not necessarily expect persecutors and criminals to admit their misdeeds (though that would be nice). Rather, if the government discovers evidence that the alien is a persecutor, it is a lot easier to prosecute him for immigration fraud than for the actual crimes he committed in his country. And that is exactly what happened to Mr. Kefelgn. He was prosecuted not for his war crimes, but instead for his immigration fraud (this reminds me of how the government prosecuted Al Capone for tax evasion rather than murder). 

As of this writing, the YaTewlid website is only in Amharic, but its founders hope to have an English version in the future. I had an Amharic-speaking friend check it out. She reports that the website needs some work, but it will potentially be a useful tool for uncovering human rights abusers living in the U.S.

It seems to me that DHS/ICE would do well to talk to groups such as YaTewlid, since the people best able to ferret out criminals (and fraudsters) are members of the various immigrant communities. 

Indeed, ICE does have a special unit, called the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU – though I think they need a more sexy acronym), which is part of the National Security Investigations Division. According to its website, HRVWCU–

conducts investigations focused on human rights violations in an effort to prevent the United States from becoming a safe haven to those individuals who engage in the commission of war crimes, genocide, torture, and other forms of serious human rights abuses from conflicts around the globe.

The unit has had its fair share of successes. Again, from the website:

Since fiscal year 2004, ICE has arrested more than 250 individuals for human rights-related violations under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same period, ICE has denied more than 117 individuals from obtaining entry visas to the United States and created more than 20,000 subject records, which prevented identified human-rights violators from attempting to enter the United States. In addition, ICE successfully obtained deportation orders to physically remove more than 590 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States. Currently, ICE is pursuing more than 1,900 leads and removal cases that involve suspected human rights violators from nearly 96 different countries.

The efforts of HRVWCU are crucial to preventing human rights abusers from taking advantage of our immigration and asylum systems, and to protecting the integrity of those systems. The cooperation of community groups such as YaTewlid is also crucial to this effort.

It is in the interest of everyone–government, immigrant groups, and “the system”– to find, punish, and deport human rights abusers. Only in this way can we provide some justice for the victims and keep the door open to legitimate refugees who need our protection.

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