Refugees Seeking Asylum Suffer Behind Bars:

Groundbreaking Medical Study Documents Harm Suffered by Detained Asylum Seekers


Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

Asylum Protection News 16

June 17, 2003



The Lawyers Committee joins Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture in calling for thorough reform to the U.S. asylum detention system


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Refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. who are placed in jail-like detention centers suffer physical and mental consequences, according to a report released today by Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.  The report, “From Persecution to Prison:  The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers,” presents the findings of the first systematic study of the physical and mental health of detained asylum seekers.


An executive summary of the report is available at [].


“This is a truly groundbreaking report. It is the most comprehensive medical report to be issued on the detention of asylum seekers, and confirms what we have long known:  detaining asylum seekers who have already survived torture, rape, imprisonment, or other persecution is wrong and harmful,” said Eleanor Acer, Director of the Asylum Program at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.


Under a draconian immigration law passed in 1996 and policies which have become ever more restrictive since September 11, 2001, asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. are subject to an “expedited removal” process in which they are automatically detained and rarely granted parole.  The mental and physical health of many detainees suffers during this period of detention, which often lasts months if not years. 


The report confirms:



In case after case, the government’s practice of imprisoning asylum seekers inflicts further harm on an already traumatized population


Detained asylum seekers suffer extremely high levels of anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 86% of the interviewed asylum seekers suffered significant depression, 77% suffered anxiety and 50% suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


The already poor psychological health of asylum seekers worsens the longer that they are detained.


Asylum seekers suffer verbal abuse by immigration inspectors at U.S. airports, as well as verbal abuse and other mistreatment at the hands of officers staffing detention facilities. 




In connection with the report, medical physicians experienced in working with asylum seekers interviewed 70 asylum seekers who were detained in detention facilities and jails in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – including the Wackenhut Detention Facility in Queens, New York and the Elizabeth (CCA) Detention Facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Many of the individuals who participated in the study are clients of legal assistance organizations, including the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and its volunteer pro bono lawyers.


The majority of the detained asylum seekers who were interviewed – 77% – came from African countries.  The median length of detention at the time the asylum seekers were interviewed was 4.7 months – with periods of detention ranging from 1 month to 4 and ½ years at the time of interview. For the 40 individuals who had been granted asylum (4 received other forms of protection, 14 had been denied asylum and 12 cases were still pending), the median length of detention was 7 months – with detention periods ranging from 2 months to 3 and ½ years. 


Jean Pierre Kamwa, a torture survivor who was detained in the U.S. for 5 months before he was granted asylum with the help of the Lawyers Committee, now works as a counselor for refugees and asylum seekers. “These detainees have, like I had when I arrived in the U.S., already been deeply affected by what happened to them before they left their homes,” Kamwa said.  “Now they are in a windowless detention center with no fresh air.  They don’t know what will happen to them, if they will be deported, or if they will be allowed to remain.  They become more and more depressed, sometimes they attempt suicide.”


While this study was conducted in the U.S., the report’s findings are highly relevant to other countries that detain asylum seekers. U.S. detention practices are particularly egregious, and are clearly in violation of international law and the detention guidelines of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.S. subjects arriving asylum seekers (in excess of 9000 last year) to mandatory detention, without giving them a chance to have a court decide if they really need to be detained. (The Lawyers Committee, with the pro bono assistance of the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, has conducted a comprehensive survey of the detention practices of countries around the world, available at [].)


When an asylum seeker’s parole request is denied in the U.S., he or she cannot appeal that decision to a court or even to an immigration judge.  “The INS – and now the new Department of Homeland Security – is basically judge and jailor when it comes to deciding whether an individual asylum seeker can be paroled from jail,” said Acer.  Even asylum seekers who meet the parole criteria are denied parole by DHS.  “This system, which was already so unfair, has become even more so with the transfer from INS to the new Department of Homeland Security.” 


Many asylum seekers now detained in the U.S. have family and friends residing in the U.S. and present absolutely no danger to security.  In many cases, these are individuals who have been targeted for persecution based on religious practice, or because they stood up for democracy and human rights. 


Recommendations and Action:


The Lawyers Committee joins Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture in calling for thorough reform to the U.S. asylum detention system.  In particular, LCHR urges that the Department of Homeland Security, the Administration and the U.S. Congress:


·      End the U.S. policy of mandatory detention without an individualized assessment of the need for detention.

·      Ensure that asylum seekers who meet fair parole criteria and present no danger to the community are released from detention.

·      Provide judicial review by an immigration judge of decision to deny parole for asylum seekers. 

·      Vigorously pursue alternatives to detention such as supervised release programs.  Implement and ensure adequate funding for these alternatives, which have been demonstrated to be less costly than detention.

·      Create a high-level internal oversight mechanism within DHS to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are treated in accordance with U.S. obligations under domestic and international law, and to ensure that asylum seeker are provided with fair procedures for seeking parole.  This need is even more crucial within DHS, because the bureaus within DHS that detain asylum seekers at airports, borders, detention facilities and jails – the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) – are now separated from the divisions with asylum expertise, which are now housed within the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS).


The report is available online at [].


We urge organizations that work with asylum seekers around the U.S. to meet with local Department of Homeland Security officials and their Congressional representatives to discuss this report, to raise any concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers and to advocate for fair parole policies and alternatives to detention for asylum seekers.


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