By Talya Lockman-Fine
The young man arrived for a meeting with the non-governmental organization employee. He had no job and, without working papers, few prospects of gaining one. He had temporary housing from another NGO whose limited resources would not stretch much further. He lived in fear of those who might do him harm and hoped that the relevant authorities would help him and grant him asylum.
The elements of this story are familiar to those who have been following the refugee and migrant crisis of the past months. They mirror the well-documented details of those camped in Budapest train stations and held in Danish detention centers. Like them, the man described is seeking asylum. But he is not a Syrian who fled within the past few months for Europe–the object of the media’s attention—but a Gambian who was been seeking asylum in Senegal for over a decade. He is thus a victim not of Europe’s failure to accommodate the growing numbers of people arriving at its borders, but of the shortcomings of Senegal’s own asylum system and of the asylum systems of other West African countries.
Over the past months, the refugee crisis has brought to light the overwhelming insufficiency of U.S. and European refugee policy, rightly prompting calls for raising caps on the numbers of refugees, among other much-needed policy changes. But there’s another piece to this story: refugee and asylum systems in developing countries are themselves deeply flawed. The two issues are not separate but in fact causally linked. With better systems in place for asylum-seekers in Senegal and in other countries closer to asylum-seekers’ countries of origin, flight to Europe might diminish, in the long term perhaps reducing the pressure on European countries to accept asylum-seekers.
Due to its relative political and economic stability, Senegal is a destination for asylum-seekers from nearby countries seeking refuge from a number of recent crises in the region. In 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 15,800 refugees and 2,914 asylum-seekers in Senegal; the number of asylum-seekers has increased by more than a third since 2010. Other countries in the region receive even more asylum-seekers with 2014 UNHCR estimates reporting over 250,000 refugees in West Africa.
Unlike many of its neighboring countries, in which UNHCR is responsible for refugee status determination, Senegal processes asylum applications itself through its National Eligibility Committee (CNE). The CNE meets to review and accept or reject applications. Those whose applications are rejected can appeal, first to the CNE, and, if the appeal is rejected, subsequently to the country’s president.
But the existence of the CNE and, more than the Committee itself, an established process for refugee status determination, falls short of constituting a fully functioning asylum system. The infrequency with which the CNE meets, and the fact that the Senegalese president must approve all decisions, nearly guarantees delays in refugee status determination. Decisions take an average of one to two years, according to the 2014 U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices. During this time, asylum-seekers are typically left without the privileges at least theoretically guaranteed to those who have been granted refugee status. They have no working papers, no right to education, no freedom of movement, and access to few social services. The nature of the Committee’s decisions—one-line statements conveying only acceptance or rejection—furthermore gives no indication of the content of its deliberations. This, and the fact that it is the CNE itself that hears appeals, renders reversals of decisions almost impossible. Once rejected, asylum-seekers can be arrested, with arrests sometimes resulting in up to three months of “administrative detention” before deportation. The Senegalese government has acknowledged these shortcomings, and, in 2011, pledged to reform its asylum law. Four years later, however, the draft law has still not been submitted to parliament. Furthermore, the situation in Senegal is not unique, but rather illustrative of those in several other African countries whose systems are similarly flawed.
On the most basic level, the need for reform of national asylum systems is grounded in the failure of current systems to uphold human rights, particularly the international protections for refugees established by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 additional protocol, themselves stemming from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While coverage of the current crisis has often obscured the distinction between migrants and refugees (with refugees defined in international law as fleeing specific categories of persecution and entitled to corresponding rights, while migrants are those seeking better opportunities abroad), the issue in Senegal is not a matter of confronting hard legal questions, but of bringing practice in line with established laws.
There is a profound need for strengthening national asylum systems in developing countries. While Europe and the U.S. reconsider their refugee policies, the Senegalese government should identify needed changes to its own asylum system, among them more regular CNE meetings, more explanation for its status determinations, the establishment of a separate body to hear appeals, and the extension of temporary permits to work and to access education for asylum-seekers. From needs identification should come a vision for what a better system could be, and, from that, the development of concrete plans to put the components of this system in place.
Throughout this process, the government should look to make use of UNHCR, which has significant technical expertise with refugee status determination, and should partner with human rights NGOs who may be able to fill gaps in crucial services. The government will also need to reach out to donors: the system’s shortcomings are in part a result of lack of resources, and change depends on sufficient financing for building the human and physical capital necessary to the functioning of an improved system and for sustaining such a system.
Asylum-seekers and refugees will, sadly, likely exist for the foreseeable future, and large numbers of people fleeing conflict such as in Syria will likely continue to necessitate large-scale political responses. Simultaneously, however, there will be other movements of people, sometimes significant numbers and sometimes individuals, whose fates depend instead on the just functioning of asylum systems much closer to their countries of origin.
The discussion must move beyond addressing the current flows of refugees to encompass the insufficient and unjust national asylum systems that predated and will, without significant efforts, unfortunately outlast them. Senegal, having already assumed control over refugee status determination and having already recognized some of its system’s shortcomings, has a tremendous opportunity. Reform of the system would have tangible and far-reaching effects: access to services, accommodations, education, and jobs for some of the continent’s most vulnerable people. Positioned to lead the discussion and take concrete actions, Senegal should set a model for other developing countries to follow.
Talya Lockman-Fine is a consultant in the Dakar office of Dalberg Global Development Advisors, a leading global strategy consulting firm that focuses on development issues.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]