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The Rare and Horrifying Instances of Refugees from First World Countries

The United States almost never grants asylum to citizens of EU countries, but in a select few cases, people have fled violations of their human rights in Europe.

by Meredith Hoffman
27 April 2016, 4:00am

Image by Carter Bird

On March 25, 2006, just before his 17th birthday, Arash Farhadi was stabbed to death at his school in Amersfoort, the Netherlands. Farhadi, whose name has been changed to protect his family's identity, was a Dutch citizen who had emigrated from Iran, and he had reportedly been bullied by classmates for his ethnicity and Muslim background.

"He had complained to his parents about these issues," Zohreh Mizrahi, the family's attorney, told me. "There was an argument at school, and this poor kid was stabbed by one of the school bullies who was part of the group that didn't appreciate his dark skin or different nationality."

After the murder, Farhadi's father organized a peace vigil in Amersfoort's central square, hoping to unite the community with a message of peace and forgiveness. But instead of sympathy, Mizrahi said, he received threats from some of his neighbors.

"It got so bad that someone threw a stone through the house window and graffitied the house," Mizrahi told me. "The father went to the police, but the cops said there was nothing they could do to help the family out."

The mayor of Amersfoort, who had been asked to speak at the vigil, canceled the event, claiming it would cause public disorder.

Terrified, heartbroken, and distraught that their government would not protect them, the Farhadis fled the Netherlands, first visiting a relative in California and then seeking asylum in the United States. The couple, who fought in court for years, eventually won their asylum case, joining what is perhaps the rarest breed of our nation's refugees: citizens of the European Union.

The United States almost never grants asylum to citizens of EU countries, according to multiple experts in global refugee issues who I interviewed. That's because, under the United Nations Refugee Convention guidelines, an individual seeking asylum must prove his home government will not or cannot protect him from persecution, and all EU countries guarantee their citizens equal protection under the law—regardless of race, religion, disability, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

"The western countries are the ones who drafted the Refugee Convention," said Paul O'Dwyer, a New York-based immigration attorney who has spent decades working on asylum cases. "It wasn't designed to overcome shortcomings in those countries' infrastructures or governments, which are what they view to be periodic shortcomings."

Only in exceptional circumstances have individuals received asylum from the EU, such as the Farhadis. The family first came to the Netherlands for safe haven in the 1990s, fleeing human rights abuses in their native Iran. The government, which had committed murders of political dissidents and intellectuals, targeted the father as he had served in the Air Force prior to the Iranian Revolution. The Netherlands offered the family asylum, and after several years, Arash and his parents became naturalized Dutch citizens.

But in an ironic twist, he family's citizen status in the EU nearly prevented them from winning protection in the US, according to Mizrahi.

"When someone is a citizen of another democratic country, the asylum request [in the United States] is supposed to be mandatorily denied," Mizrahi told me. And indeed, the Farhadi family's case was initially denied in the San Diego asylum office.

Mizrahi stepped in after two other attorneys had already refused to take on the family's case, which Mizrahi said was "draining" because the mother was too traumatized to speak. "She lost her only son. She was in absolute paralysis and under heavy-duty antidepressant medication, so she couldn't articulate her pain and loss." (The Farhadis declined to speak with me, and asked that their identities remain anonymous to protect them from potential threats in the United States.)

The challenge, which Mizrahi eventually met, was to show that the Netherlands would not have offered them protection equal to that in the US.

"It took me several years to get court records from the Netherlands to show they were not as vigilant as they should [have been]. It was a huge fight all the way through," Mizrahi recalled. Ultimately, she was able to argue that "the equal protection of the laws, civil rights, and liberties we talk about in European countries are only for [their] own people," and did not always protect people like the Farhadis, who were naturalized immigrants.

While cases like these are incredibly rare in the United States, I found four other instances where EU citizens were awarded asylum in the United States in the past few decades, all from Iranian natives. Immigration attorney Ally Bolour, who represented three of these cases, told me Iranians were particularly vulnerable in Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Iranian officials often targeted Iranian refugees in Europe who were considered political dissidents. In fact, the Islamic Republic covertly assassinated dissidents around the continent, in what was dubbed a "global assassination campaign."

Because Iran had embassies in Europe, the country could fly individuals more easily into and out of the countries than it could to the US, to which had no diplomatic ties, Bolour explained. As a result, Iranian refugees were safer in the States.

One Iranian family, who fled persecution in Iran in the late 80s, lived happily in Sweden for years. "They were politically active against the Islamic Republic in Europe, holding demonstrations, so the Swedish government wasn't able to guarantee their safety," Bolour told me. Eventually, Islamic Republic members tracked the family down and attacked the father. They came to the States in the early 2000s and were eventually granted asylum.

"The United States government was aware of the threat these guys faced in Europe and corroborated their statements in court," Bolour said, noting that cases like this are extremely rare.

Though the Islamic Republic of Iran has not recently targeted Iranians in Europe, Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refugees, Asylum, and Migration, said the recent influx of Middle Eastern refugees to the European continent has created whole new levels of discrimination, which could prompt individuals to flee Europe.

"There have been 1,200 fires of Muslim refugee homes in Germany, and I have Muslim clients who have changed their names in Germany and in Sweden out of fear," Grungras said, who predicts that more Muslims will seek asylum outside of Europe as racial tensions come to a head. "The question will be what countries can give asylum—the asylum countries of the world are growing intolerant for any kind of refugee."

But Bolour said he could not imagine many individuals in Europe winning asylum claims in the United States, even as discrimination reaches a zenith.

"Whenever there's due process and rule of law in a court system, it's infinitely harder to argue asylum," Bolour said. "Getting asylum from a European country is like a unicorn: It just doesn't happen, except in incredibly rare circumstances."

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