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Status Issues

2010 April 16
by Ben Achtenberg

It’s All About Status

Folks frequently misread or misspell the name of our project, substituting “refugee” for “refuge.” But that extra “e” makes a big difference, and it’s all about status – status in the sense used by immigration authorities worldwide.

Our project’s focus is on survivors of torture and – at least for the purposes of the film we are working on now – specifically on survivors living in the United States. The word refuge has dictionary definitions including “safety, a safe place; something or someone to turn to for assistance or security; a shelter from danger or hardship,” and so on. With our choice of name, we hope to raise and explore the question of to what extent our country is truly a place of refuge – a place of safety and caring.

Immigration Demonstration - Boston

In general conversation we might think of a refugee as anyone seeking to take refuge, but in the field of human rights,the word has a more precise meaning. Under internationally recognized agreements and procedures, a refugee is someone who has been granted that status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as being a person who has left his or her home country and who is unable to return there safely because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Such a person therefore has certain rights to resettlement in another country.

Certainly many survivors in the U.S. are here as refugees, but many may also be here as asylum seekers, asylees (people who have been granted asylum), visitors, legal residents, or even citizens – and many may be undocumented. Others may have “Temporary Protected Status” or TPS (recently granted to many undocumented Haitians, because of post-earthquake conditions there) and “Deferred Enforced Departure” or DED, which was recently renewed for many Liberians living in the U.S.

It is very important for anyone working with survivors of torture to be aware of these distinctions of status, as they crucially affect the type and extent of healthcare and other services to which a person is entitled. Perhaps even more importantly, they profoundly affect the degree to which a person can feel safe and secure here – can feel that they have truly arrived in a place of refuge.

See our website for further information and definitions of forms of legally recognized status. There will be more discussion of these and related issues in posts to come, and we hope that our readers will contribute their own experiences and ideas as well.



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