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Introduction: Asylum, health, and human rights

Fleeing persecution

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are threatened, persecuted and tortured because of who they are or what they believe. This includes members of opposition political parties in totalitarian nations, adherents of locally unpopular religions, and LGBT men and women who are ostracized by their communities.

Asylum and detention in the US

Asylum is a legal immigration status [1]designed to offer safety to innocent victims like these. A person who fears future physical or psychological harm in his or her home country may be eligible to live and work as an asylee in the US.

Although asylum is meant to protect a victim’s human rights, the US process for granting asylum often undermines these rights. Many traumatized asylum seekers are incarcerated for months or even years in jail-like immigration detention centers [2]. Their mental and physical health declines due to isolation, punitive treatment, substandard medical care and a host of other bad conditions. Even if released from custody, individuals may be subjected to stigmatizing and restrictive community monitoring that requires wearing an ankle bracelet or being visited at home regularly by the immigration equivalent of a probation officer. Asylum seekers are not provided with lawyers, work permits, social services, or medical care (except if incarcerated) while their cases are being decided.  They are not able to earn a legal income. This lack of support pushes many to give up fighting their cases before receiving a decision, in spite of the danger they face upon deportation.

Asylum seekers in the US are confronted by a system that exacerbates the harm done by previous human rights abuses and imperils their health.