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FORUM: Gender equality requires spouses to file separate refugee claims

July 9, 2006

Contesting the ‘principle applicant’ rule

The opinions expressed here may not represent the views of RSDWatch or Asylum Access, and are distributed here in the interests of public discussion.

By George Kariuki Njamwitha

Advocate, High Court of Kenya

Under current UNHCR guidelines, only “principle applicants” are guaranteed an in person interview when going through the refugee status determination process. This policy tends to silence women because in family situations, men tend to be the sole applicants for asylum on behalf of themselves and the family.

Consider the following case of an Ethiopian man named X, who first comes to Kenya on his own. He goes through a refugee status determination interview after giving an account of his political activities back in Ethiopia, and recounts a series of persecutions directed at him due to his political orientation, having been at one time a military officer in the previous government. He is found to qualify for international protection as a refugee.

A few years later, Mr. X is joined by the rest of his family, seven children, two of them being of the age of majority, and his wife.

Principally on strength of X’s claim and after authentication of the family’s relationship to him, the wife and the children are recognized as refugees. No substantive interviews are made into their individual claims, no independent interviews are carried out to verify facts are carried out; indeed the matter is treated as merely one for family reunification.

Years later, it is found out that Mr, X had either withheld information about his activities back in the country of asylum, or lied about them. This leads to the cancellation of refugee status. Letters to this effect are issued to all the family members, informing them of the revocation of their status as refugees.

The whole family is left in the cold, without status, and without the benefit of the claim by the wife, or the other children who have attained the age of majority. Attempts by the wife to secure an interview to establish her own claim and that of her children succeed only after relentless advocacy by a local NGO.

Such cases, in which whole families are recognized or fail to be recognized on the basis of the claim of the husband as the sole applicant, are not uncommon. When women in family situations are interviewed, it is often only to corroborate the testimony of their spouses. Separate interviews for women are often seen as unnecessary, time consuming and costly.

Some women are socialized to be passive and have someone speak for them, hence their ‘voices’ are not heard when the RSD interviews are done. There could be problems of reluctance on the part of women to speak candidly about their experiences in cases where male officers conduct the interviews, or when the only available translation is done through a male translator.

Consequently, the experiences of women are subsumed under those of their husbands, and the woman’s ability to obtain asylum becomes dependent on the husband’s claim. In such cases, entire families could be rejected even when they should be extended the full protection afforded to them by international law, on the basis of the woman’s claim.

Husbands and wives should as a rule be required to file separate refugee claims, rather than making one person dependent on the other before assessing whether there are independent reasons for recognizing each as a refugee.

There should be mandatory extension of full RSD interviews to both husbands and wives, so that women’s recognition is not merely pegged on the claims of husbands, and to enable wives to lodge their own individual claims. This would overcome an unintentional institutional practice of excluding women by considering them dependents of their spouses even for purposes of conferring RSD status.

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