In Search of Asylum

Venezuela's crisis has put a very human face on the byzantine process of seeking refugee status. It's also revealed just how much work remains to be done if international law is to serve its purpose well.

Román never thought his life would go like this. He was doing pretty well for himself: he had a university degree, a long-time girlfriend whom he planned on marrying, and a stable career with a well-known pharmaceutical company. He made enough to have his own car and rent an apartment in Caracas.

Now Román is a refugee. Or, rather, he’s trying to become one.

He fled Venezuela about two years ago, taking just a few basics with him. He was still young and healthy, but a lot of his friendliness, enthusiasm and good nature were buried when he left.

He entered the United States on a tourist visa and was lucky enough to be welcomed at a friend’s house. Six months later, when his visa expired, he remained in the U.S., working “under the table.”

Román lost everything. His girlfriend was kidnapped during a work outing and murdered when a malandro noticed she was hiding her cellphone and was trying to notify someone. Román worked at the same place his girlfriend did and he was not only heartbroken because of her murder, but because it could have easily been him.

Growing up, Roman never could have guessed the 1951 the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees would ever be of the slightest relevance to his life. The treaty, agreed at the then recently-formed United Nations (UN), is now at the center of his life plan.

Initially intended to follow up on the millions displaced after the holocaust, it was amended on December 1967 through an Additional Protocol which provided it with universal character.

He was still young and healthy, but a lot of his friendliness, enthusiasm and good nature were buried when he left.

Theoretically, anyone who has fled from the country of his/her nationality or permanent residence can apply for refugee status if:

  • The person has a well-founded fear of persecution
  • This persecution is due to reasons of: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion
  • Due to fear of persecution, this person is unable or unwilling to return to the country of his/her permanent residence or country of nationality

Refugee status is decided on a case by case basis, so the country’s general and terrible situation is important, but of limited relevance.

When Román first arrived in the U.S, he intended to test the waters, go back to Venezuela and then come back to the U.S with a more thorough plan. Things didn’t work out like that, though: as the bolívar devalued, he realized he’d never be able to afford another ticket, so he decided to stay in the U.S.

After signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which supposedly encompassed all human rights as non-hierarchical and indivisible, the UN also introduced two other Conventions in 1966: The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which deals with concepts such as freedom of expression and torture, and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which addresses notions like education and famine.

Refugee status is decided on a case by case basis, so the country’s general and terrible situation is important, but of limited relevance.

The splitting of human rights into these two covenants came with a high price for refugee law, because a long tradition of granting refugee status under civil and political rights violations was reinforced; and persecution became a very difficult concept to define and substantiate by asylum seekers. The state’s intention to harm (ex: state agents carrying out acts of torture) became more important than the state’s intention not to protect (not fulfilling the right to adequate standards of living, such as eating properly).

Working illegally in the U.S. for months, Román was underpaid, extorted and abused. But he’s a resourceful guy. He contacted a lawyer from an NGO with expertise in the field, who put forward the idea of applying for refugee status.

Chávez and Maduro have been crafty in the way they present Venezuela to the international community: explicit political persecution have been disguised as accusations of acts of terrorism; colectivos have served the dual public purpose of “being but not being” part of government; food shortages, lack of medicines, exchange control under the framework of an economic war have been classified by international authorities as a difficulty of the state to fulfill its duty. That’s different from the state intentionally failing to fulfill its duty. It’s hard to convince a judge that Chávez and Maduro had a political plan to make life for their citizens untenable: after all, weren’t they elected democratically?

Venezuelans have walked a thin line when it comes to requesting refugee status. The indicators measured by international organizations often don’t reflect the country’s crushing reality. The sole idea of foreign exchange control doesn’t quite convey the impossibility of buying a dollarized plane ticket to leave Venezuela; high crime and pervasive violence don’t tell the story of the way mafias and colectivos exercise control over our lives; even food shortages get ascribed to falling oil prices rather than executive decision to starve a country rather than soltar el coroto.

It’s hard to convince a judge that Chávez and Maduro had a political plan to make life for their citizens untenable.

Román spent months as an asylum seeker, the transitional legal state for those applying for refugee status while obtaining a formal answer. He continued to work, phoned his family every now and then, fought loneliness and depression and tried to save some money. With international legislation in mind, his lawyer built a case detailing the persecution and explaining the inherent political and mafia-like features of colectivos, while addressing the characteristics that made Román a specific target. These, however, are not that different from most venezuelans’ day to day experiences.

Román remained cautious and alert while fearing being deported. He wasn’t happy, and had stopped trying to be. As a matter of fact, he was mostly struggling to survive, while feeling his biggest losses were the hours spent remembering who he was, trying to avoid the dark pit of not knowing what was going to become of him.

Just several weeks ago, Román was in shock unexpected success knocked on his door. He was granted refugee status. He didn’t celebrate, though, or even feel at ease. He just felt lucky. Lucky and relieved. He knew the odds were stacked against him, and that the likelihood of being granted refugee status is extremely low. He was especially grateful for the lawyer who took on his case.

This is not a happy ending. Human rights and international legislation processes and implementation have been criticized and questioned for decades due to the social complexities and diffuse nature of political phenomena. Modifications do come, but at an unnervingly slow pace.

It’s the sort of problem Venezuelans used to have the luxury of being able to ignore: exotic issues people like Román never expected to play a part in their lives. Today, thousands of Venezuelans like him find that their life plans hang on the minutiae of the way tribunals interpret their international obligations to protect those seeking refuge. It’s a whole new world.