June 14, 1996

U.S. Grants Asylum to Woman Fleeing Genital Mutilation Rite


The highest administrative tribunal in the U.S. immigration system granted political asylum on Thursday to a 19-year-old woman from Togo who said she had fled her homeland to escape having her genitals cut off.

The decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals in the case of the woman, Fauziya Kasinga, is the first to recognize the fear of genital mutilation as a legitimate ground for asylum. The rite is practiced on millions of women in 26 African countries.

The ruling sets a precedent that is binding on the 179 immigration judges across the country. The few who have handled such cases have been divided in their rulings.

The board, part of the Justice Department, rejected the argument of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, also part of the department. It had argued that although genital mutilation should be a reason for asylum in carefully defined circumstances, Ms. Kasinga's case should be sent back to an immigration judge to consider what the service said were inconsistencies in her story.

Immigration law calls for asylum to be granted to people who can show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, polical opinions or membership in a social group.

Ms. Kasinga's lawyers sought a narrow ruling that would not foreclose future claims by women in different circumstances. The immigration service argued that ostracism for opposing the procedure did not count as persecution, and asked the board for a framework that would limit which women could qualify for asylum.

The ruling, written by the chairman, Paul Schmidt, was a narrow one. It said, "We decline to speculate on, or establish rules for, cases that are not before us." The ruling went on to say that genital mutilation as practiced by the tribe to which Ms. Kasinga belonged, the Tchamba-Kunsuntu, constitutes persecution.

The ruling quoted from a report prepared by the immigration service, an Alert Series on female genital mutilation in Africa. "It remains particularly true," the ruling quoted the report as saying, "that women have little legal recourse and may face threats to their freedom, threats or acts of physical violence, or social ostracization for refusing to undergo this harmful traditional practice, or attempting to protect their female children."

The clearest rebuke to the service was the ruling's rejection of the service's argument that Ms. Kasinga was not credible. There were "no meaningful inconsistencies" in her testimoney, the ruling said.

Ms. Kasinga told the immigration authorities that her father had opposed the ritual mutilation and, as a wealthy businessman, was able to defy the tribal customs. But he died suddenly when she was 15, and an aunt arranged for her to become the fourth wife of a middle-age man. To avoid the marriage and the genital mutilation that was to be part of the rites, Ms. Kasinga said she fled, first to Ghana, then to Germany and finally to the United States, where she had relatives.

Landing at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Ms. Kasinga asked for asylum. She was detained in the Esmor detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., run by a private company under contract with the immigration service. The detained asylum seekers protested conditions that the immigration service later found included cruelty by guards, malnutrition, strip searches and isolation. The protest led to a melee a year ago that ended with tear gas and beatings. Ms. Kasinga and the other asylum seekers were sent to other prisons.

At the York County (Pa.) Prison, Ms. Kasinga was strip-searched and locked in a maximum security cell with an American convict, said the warden, Thomas Hogan. A week before her case was to be heard by the immigration tribunal, after an article in The New York Times described her case, Ms. Kasinga was released from prison.

Ms. Kasinga has been living in the Washington area since her April release.

Layli Miller Bashir, a recent graduate of the law school at American University in Washington who worked on Ms. Kasinga's case, said she was satisfied that the immigration judge was overruled. "I'm really happy for Fauziya," she said.

Other Places of Interest on the Web
  • The Global Action Against Female Genital Mutilation
  • The Female Genital Mutilation Research Home Page

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