Two important cases, reported this week, vindicate the rights of refugees to recognition and fair treatment.
In the first case, the House of Lords upheld Zainab Fornah’s right to refugee status as a young woman from Sierra Leone who, after abduction and repeated rape by rebel soldiers during the country’s civil war, was threatened with female genital mutilation (FGM) when she returned home. The House of Lords, the UK’s supreme court, accepted that women facing practices such as FGM were as deserving of protection under the Refugee Convention as men and women facing persecution on political or religious grounds.
The judgement, which brings the UK courts in line with courts in Canada, the US, Australia and Europe, has provided great encouragement to women campaigning against traditional harmful practices such as female genital mutilation in Africa.
The other important case involves the criminal offence of failure to produce a passport on arrival, for which hundreds of asylum seekers have been charged and sent to prison since its controversial introduction in 2004. Refugee and human rights lawyers have argued that the section violates the rights of genuine refugees not to be punished for immigration irregularities, protected by Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. In the case of Thet, the High Court held that if an asylum seeker had never had a genuine passport (because he had never dared to apply for one, or his government refused to issue one), he could not be found guilty of the offence if he used a false passport to get to safety, which he then returned to the agent. The judgment, delivered by the Lord Chief Justice, should result in compensation for many who have been wrongly convicted, and restores the protection which refugees need to enable them to flee to safety.