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Respect Medical Neutrality

All health professionals are required to treat any individual in need of medical assistance, regardless of the patient’s background or identity. This standard, known as medical neutrality, adheres to the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions, and is widely respected by international medical organizations. However, US immigration policy does not respect medical neutrality for health professionals seeking asylum within the US. Under current policy, immigration officials can deny asylum to any health professional that has previously treated any individual considered to be part of a terrorist organization. This is known as the “material support to terrorism” exclusion ground, and can result in permanent ineligibility for asylum or any form of legal status in the US.

In the past decade, the US government has expanded its definition of a terrorist organization; many groups that were not previously considered terrorist organizations now fall into this category, including groups who have collaborated with the US in civil conflicts. Definitions of “providing material support” have also expanded, and include offering food, having property stolen at gun point, or providing urgently needed medical care to any member of an alleged terrorist organization.

Consider the story of B.T., a Nepalese nurse who spent several years waiting for a decision on his asylum petition because he was forced to provide health care to rebel forces. In Nepal, B.T. was kidnapped twice by Maoist rebels, led blindfolded to their hideout, and forced at gunpoint to provide care to guerillas suffering from burns and gunshot wounds. B.T. chose to treat the rebels rather than be executed by them.

The Nepalese army then arrested him on two occasions under the accusation that he supported Maoist rebels. While in jail in Nepal, government soldiers beat B.T. with sticks and the butt of a gun, put pins in his fingertips, cut his fingers and hands with knives, and threatened to kill him. He decided to seek protection in the US.

Eventually, B.T. was able to secure a tourist visa to the U.S. and was granted asylum upon his arrival. However, the Department of Homeland Security appealed to revoke his asylum status, alleging that the health care he had provided to the Maoist rebels constituted material support to a terrorist group. For several years, B.T. was separated from his wife and children while he awaited a decision on his case.

While in some circumstances health professionals are forced to provide care under duress, others act voluntarily in accordance with their duty and commitment to treat any individual in need of medical care. Health professionals who have acted in the best interest of their patients should not be denied asylum or refugee status and forced to return to their countries of origin where they face persecution, torture, or death. PHR urges the United States to restore its respect for medical neutrality and to end the denial of asylum and other legal status to persecuted health professionals.