Sunday Forum: Double jeopardy

Children forced to fight in wars or serve as slaves are not welcome to start new lives in the United States, complains human rights lawyer ANWEN HUGHES

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Conscripted at the age of 13 into the Sierra Leonean army, Ishmael Beah became one of thousands of children around the world who are taken from their families and forced into combat every year. As Ishmael testified in Washington, "[They] are maimed and they lose their humanity, and these are the fortunate ones."

The less fortunate ones are dead. Ishmael's memoir of his experiences, "A Long Way Gone," describes both his descent into the madness of a brutal civil war and his emergence from that horror into a "second life" in which he has used his literary gifts to call attention to this terrible practice.

There are children like Ishmael Beah on almost every continent, forced to serve in rebel forces and government armies. Children as young as 8 years old, dwarfed by the guns they are made to carry, are trained to fight. They are used as porters, cooks and servants, or to lay or clear landmines. Girls are exploited for sexual purposes.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.

Anwen Hughes is senior counsel at Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group, where she helps oversee pro bono legal representation for indigent asylum seekers ( She adapted this piece for the Post-Gazette from testimony presented to Congress.

The United States recognizes this as a violation of children's rights under international law. And yet, in the eyes of the U.S. government, children who survive this experience are barred from seeking safe haven in this country. Recent anti-terrorism and immigration enforcement legislation, intended to bar perpetrators of human rights violations, has been used to prevent victims of serious human rights abuses from gaining protection in the United States. Child soldiers in need of refuge are a particularly vulnerable subset of those affected by this absurd application of the law.

Even as the international community has worked to prohibit the use of child soldiers -- not only in combat but also as porters, cooks and messengers -- the definition of "terrorist activity" under our immigration laws has expanded to include all of these tasks. Even children who were forced "only" into nonviolent servitude are tagged with the same "terrorist" label as their former captors under a provision barring anyone who provided "material support" for armed groups.

The Bush administration has compounded this problem by failing to recognize defenses or exceptions to these overly broad provisions. Under the government's interpretation, no form of assistance to an armed group is too immaterial or too small to trigger exclusion from international refugee protection. Pocket change, a chicken, even emergency medical care provided by health professionals who are ethically bound to treat the wounded -- the government has argued that all of these constitute "material support" for terrorism.

Worse, the government is applying these provisions even to refugees who acted under coercion. This means that children who were forced to do what they did, or were too young at the time to understand what they were doing, can be denied refuge. This insane policy violates U.S. obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, which allows governments to deny protection only to those refugees who made a knowing moral choice to engage in serious wrongdoing.

The government's policy of blaming the victim is psychologically harmful to all refugees, but particularly tragic in the case of child soldiers, who often face the same kind of stigma in their communities of origin. This is an understandable reaction in villages traumatized by war. But it should not be the refugee policy of the U.S. government.

The law gives the executive branch discretion to waive some of these provisions, but implementation of that waiver authority has been slow and incomplete, despite some recent movement. And the waivers do not cover children who actually bore arms or those who have persecuted others, a bar invoked against former child soldiers.

My organization represents a young man who, as a child of 14, was forcibly conscripted into the army of a government that had previously jailed and tortured him. He was sent to the front where, under threat of death, he was made to shoot in the direction of a group of people in the distance. He does not know if his bullets hit anyone. He does know that another child who refused to shoot was executed before his eyes, as was a child who tried to escape this horror.

The only reason the U.S. government knows any of these facts is because the young man described them in his application for asylum. Although he has been living a peaceful and productive life in the United States ever since his escape from those who robbed him of his childhood, he has been left to recover from that trauma under an ongoing threat of deportation.

We recently filed an application for asylum for another former child soldier, whose case could be affected by the government's absurd interpretation of the law. What can I tell this child, who longs and deserves to begin a new life in safety here? I cannot tell her when the government will fix these laws or when she can finally feel safe here. Six more months? One more year? Two more years? This is a long time for a child, or for any traumatized refugee who needs security to envision her "second life."

Those who use child soldiers often employ despicable means -- like forcing them to do things they can never tell others about -- in order to bind them together and convince them that they can never go home. Now, our immigration laws prevent these children from finding shelter here, too.

This situation urgently needs to change. If the relevant federal agencies will not recognize defenses and exceptions as inherent in the current statute, Congress should act to make clear that its intention in passing these laws was not to turn the very harm that refugees have suffered into the grounds for refusing them the protection they need.


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