Uyghurs stuck in the US asylum system have no time to lose

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May 15, 2023 | OGR – OpenGlobalRights | By Henryk Szadziewski

“I can’t sleep,” said Hoshur, a Uyghur asylum seeker who arrived in the United States in 2020. “My family in China has been persecuted because of my asylum application. My five brothers and sisters were interned in concentration camps. I’ve lost contact with most of my family members. One had a heart attack. I desperately wanted to go home to care for them. However, it’s impossible,” Hoshur added. 

In 2022, I interviewed Uyghurs in the US like Hoshur, who had been waiting on decisions regarding their asylum applications. Some had been in limbo for eight years. 

My new report for the Uyghur Human Rights Project reveals that around 500 to 1,000 Uyghurs like Hoshur are waiting for asylum decisions in the United States. As of March 2023, delays in most Uyghur cases across the asylum system are due to court date scheduling.

In the context of a US policy determination that Uyghurs are suffering genocide, Uyghur asylum seekers in the US should not be waiting years for a decision. They need relief from the legal limbo that makes them highly vulnerable to China’s transnational repression. They shouldn’t be worrying about work permits, or whether they can send their children to college at in-state rates, at a time when they are suffering daily nightmares about their disappeared family members in the Chinese government’s concentration camps

Delays in work authorization mean some are living on the edge of destitution despite, in many cases, advanced degrees and sought-after skills. Years-long delays in their cases mean paying recurring expenses to process paperwork and ongoing fees to immigration lawyers. Some are paying thousands of dollars each year just to keep the paperwork current. Uyghurs with pending asylum cases are reduced to precarious employment and dependence on charity from friends and the small Uyghur community.

Being stuck in the asylum system also takes a toll on physical and mental health—burdens that should not be added to the trauma suffered by secondary survivors of an ongoing genocide. Uyghurs feel the pain of disconnection from family members in the Uyghur Region who they cannot contact. Many struggle with survivor’s guilt—they cannot avoid the crushing fear that, simply by having gone abroad to study or do business, their actions have been used as a pretext by the Chinese government to send their loved ones into concentration camps or prison. Waiting for asylum decisions is linked to depression, reduced cognitive abilities, forgetfulness, and sleeplessness, resulting in a retraumatizing experience. The cost of health insurance and counseling services means few have professional help to cope with their trauma.

Reforms in the asylum policy under the Biden Administration in 2022 were meant to help clear the asylum backlog, to bring the government into compliance with the statutory requirement for the entire process to take six months. The current average is five years. Backlogs in the system, especially for court dates, were already very bad by the mid-2010s. But the 2018 switchover to a “last in, first out” approach turned out to be the worst possible timing for Uyghurs. Those who had already been waiting many years for an adjudication were suddenly put at the back of the line, just as it was becoming clear that China had launched large-scale arbitrary roundups that victimized their entire extended families.

It took several more years for the government to make an official policy determination that the repression constitutes crimes against humanity and genocide, in January 2021. But at this point in 2023, two years on, it’s unconscionable that hundreds of Uyghurs in the US still don’t have asylum.

To be sure, the US government’s policy response to the genocide is miles ahead of all other governments, with more than 117 targeted sanctions in place. The US has been right to sanction not only officials but also the companies actively building and profiting from the surveillance state and mass state-imposed forced labor. But leaving asylum seekers in limbo is a glaring and gaping hole by any definition of an adequate atrocity response. 

Congress needs to get involved and should direct the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to prioritize asylum seekers who are victims and survivors of genocides and atrocity crimes recognized by US policy determinations. 

The US Task Force on Atrocity Prevention, which stood up the first-ever “US Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent and Respond to Atrocities” in May 2022, needs to take a hand on this quite simple response to genocide: fix the asylum backlog for the victims. Key agencies in the task force need to meet with the Uyghur American community and do what it takes to facilitate swift decisions on asylum applications.

Uyghurs in the US face the same ineffective asylum and refugee policies that many other communities have long faced, including Yemenis and Venezuelans, among others. Here and now, when two successive presidential administrations have recognized the severity of the crimes perpetrated against the Uyghur people, it’s time to clear away the obstacles to granting asylum to every Uyghur in this country.