Although the number of Pakistanis seeking refuge in other countries is rising, those seeking asylum from the proverbial land of opportunity – the United States – are declining in number.
In the years before and shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the US was a country of choice for thousands of Pakistanis looking to emigrate. In 2002, close to 20% of the 7,000 Pakistanis wanting to leave their country applied to the US for asylum. In 2013, of over 26,000 Pakistanis seeking asylum, less than 2.5% were asking to enter the once-friendly United States.
“Muslims have been targeted by the Department of Homeland Security, and the United States is simply not hospitable to Muslim asylum-seekers,” observed Matthew L Kolken, a New York-based attorney and a senior member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Among 44 industrialised countries with asylum-seekers, Pakistan currently ranks sixth, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Last year, Pakistan witnessed an 11 per cent rise in asylum-seekers, according to the agency.
The reasons for leaving Pakistan have become more urgent as the country continues to grapple with its fledgling democracy.
Generally, the applicants are claiming fear of persecution, from either terrorists or extremist groups, said Harnam S Arneja, a Washington DC-based lawyer who has taken on asylum cases.
But access to asylum in the US has become extremely difficult and cumbersome because of changes to the application standards and a decreased rate of approvals, explained Arneja. “Any applicant, including a Pakistani, has to prove credible fear of persecution, either in the past or in future if he or she returns to Pakistan.”
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USICS) and Department of Homeland Security data revealed that 4,113 applications of asylum-seekers were received from 2002 to April 2014. Around 1,736 applications were approved, 115 denied and 1,742 adjudicated referred. The ‘adjudicated referred’ column refers to cases that USICS is not able to approve. “Such cases are referred to federal immigration courts, where a judge makes the final determination on eligibility,” said Tim Counts, the USCIS spokesperson.
These statistics do not include all nationals from Pakistan who applied for asylum during these years, he explained.
Separately, US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) Public Affairs Officer Christine Getzler Vaughan told The Express Tribune that since 2002, America has resettled 927 refugees from Pakistan. She, however, explained that these statistics do not include those who may have immigrated to the US via other means or sought asylum after arrival.
Pakistani jurist Majid Bashir, who deals with asylum-seekers’ cases, has listed several reasons for the declining trend in asylum-seeking in the United States.
The US imposed restrictions on Pakistan by putting her on the watch list when it comes to dealing with trade and intellectual property rights, he said, pointing to some. “New laws and Muslims’ alleged involvement in security-related issues and incidents could be the major reason behind it,” he added.
And it seems like the trend of declining asylum-seekers is here to stay – Pakistanis have made the choice of not seeking opportunities in the ‘land of opportunity’.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2014.