Washington Week on Human Rights: April 18, 2016


Obama in Saudi Arabia

This week President Obama travels to Saudi Arabia to meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the heads of state from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Though the summit will formally focus the nations’ efforts to enhance security and counter violent extremism, Human Rights First is urging the president to make time during his trip to meet with Saudi civil society leaders and to publicly raise concern over ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by U.S. allies in the Gulf. The organization is also encouraging President Obama to press the Saudi government to release three Saudi human rights activists who are currently imprisoned for their work: Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Ashraf Fayadh, and to press the GCC monarchs to use their influence to help end the conflict in Syria.
These issues will be discussed in detail at tomorrow’s Center for Transatlantic Relations and Human Rights First event “High Stakes at the Gulf Summit: What President Obama Should Get from the GCC Meeting.” Register Here.

Pontiff Tackles Global Refugee Crisis

Over the weekend, Pope Francis traveled to the Greek Island of Lesbos to meet with refugees and migrants stranded amid the faltering European Union-Turkey migrant deal. Francis ultimately left the island with 12 Muslim refugees from three displaced families, including six children. Together they travelled to the Vatican, where the families will be put in the care of a charity while they build new lives. This month the State Department released its official resettlement numbers for March, bringing the six month total number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States to 1,285, only 13% of the way toward the goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 30, 2016. Human Rights First recently released a report, “At Least 10,000” outlining how U.S. processing of resettlement cases, as well as processing of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications has been hampered by bottlenecks, backlogs, and staffing gaps, making it difficult for the United States to meet its minimal refugee resettlement commitment. Addressing these backlogs, as detailed in the report, would not undermine the security of the process; rather it would strengthen the integrity of the process which includes extensive security vetting as outlined in an appendix to the report.

U.S. Asylum and Immigration System Backlogs

This week, Human Rights First will release its new report on backlogs in the United States asylum and immigration system. The report details how chronic underfunding, hiring challenges, and shifting enforcement strategies have led to alarming backlogs in U.S. immigration courts of more than 620,000 pending removal and asylum cases, threatening the integrity of the U.S. immigration system and exposing vulnerable asylum seekers and their families to wait times of up to six years for resolution of their claims. The backlog in the Asylum Division of USCIS has quadrupled since 2013, largely due to an increase in credible fear and reasonable fear interviews, as well as an elevation in affirmative asylum applications. The backlog in the immigration courts has ballooned to nearly half a million cases and there is an average wait time of two years in the Asylum Division for an initial application. These delays also prolong the separation of refugee families by years, leaving the children and spouses of some refugees stranded in difficult and dangerous situations abroad while they await a grant of asylum. Disproportionate funding of the immigration and asylum system is a primary cause of the backlog. Over the past 14 years, Congress has increased immigration enforcement budgets, but has not proportionately increased the budget of the systems charged with handling the resulting cases. The prioritization of cases of children and families from Central America has led to the further escalation of wait times for the many immigration court cases that have not been prioritized.


On Saturday, the administration announced the transfer of nine Guantanamo Bay detainees to Saudi Arabia. The nine detainees are all from Yemen and were all brought to Guantanamo in 2002. The transfers come weeks after the Pentagon released a plan to Congress detailing how the administration intends to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The administration’s plan includes the accelerated transfer of detainees at Guantanamo who have been cleared for transfer by defense, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. It also mandates expedited review, pursuant to administrative Period Review Board (PRB) hearings, of those remaining detainees who are not facing trial to determine if they can be cleared for transfer. The remaining detainees who will not be transferred in the near term—a number not to exceed 60—will be relocated to one of thirteen stateside detention facilities, pending Congressional approval. This will result in annual operating savings of up to $85 million compared to the cost of detention operations at Guantanamo. There are currently 80 detainees held at Guantanamo, which costs approximately $445 million per year to operate, about $5.5 million per detainee. The administration’s plan is in line with recommendations made in Human Rights First’s blueprint, “How to Close Guantanamo.”


“It’s not just that the United States is falling pathetically short of its own ideal of providing a haven to those fleeing persecution and violence. U.S. allies are in desperate need of help to share the burdens of the refugee crisis. Admitting more refugees would not only show U.S. leadership, but also help preserve the stability of the front-line societies.”

—”Too Slow and Helping Too Few”,Washington Post, April 16, 2016


The Washington Post Editorial Board highlighted the Obama administration’s slow progress towards resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States by September 2016. April 5 marked the halfway point towards that deadline and only 1,285 refugees had been resettled.

In the New York Times, Elisa Massimino continues the conversation initiated by a recent opinion piece by Bono on the ongoing crisis for Syrian refugees. Massimino argues that in addition to increased humanitarian and development assistance, the United States must lead by example and increase refugee resettlement.

Agence France-Presse reports on an open letter issued by a coalition of 11 advocacy organizations calling on President Obama to help free human rights defenders incarcerated in member-nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The president is traveling to Saudi Arabia to take part in the U.S.-GCC summit this week.The Nation also reports on the trip, citing President Obama’s 2011 commitment to “popular movements for reform across the region.

The Jewish Press and Jspace News report on the new joint Human Rights First and Anti Defamation League report, “Scorecard on Hate Crime Response in the OSCE Region.” The report finds that many OSCE member-states are underreporting hate crime despite a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

Brian Dooley writes in Foreign Affairs that sectarianism is Syria may not be as insoluble as once believed. Citing a new poll, the article argues that continued violence is leading a growing number of Syrians to reject the inevitability of a sectarian way of life.


NBC News tells the story of a Syrian refugee family starting a new life in Rome. They were one of the three families taken from the Greek island of Lesbos this weekend by Pope Francis. The Pontiff visited the refugee camps to spread a message of empathy and mercy.


TUESDAY, APRIL 19, 2016 

The House Judiciary Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing entitled “The Human Toll of the Obama Administration’s Reckless Immigration Policies: The Victims of Criminal Aliens Speak Out.” The hearing will feature testimony by Frederick County, MD Sheriff Charles Jenkins; Michelle Root, mother of Sarah Root, who was killed by an unlawful immigrant on January 31, 2016; Laura Wilkerson, mother of Josh Wilkerson, who was tortured and murdered by an unlawful immigrant on November 16, 2010. 10:00 AM, 2141 Rayburn House Office Building.

The Office of Representative Eliot Engel will hold a briefing entitled “The Transnational and Humanitarian Implications of Immigration,” focusing on unaccompanied child migration. The briefing will feature Sonia Nazario, author and journalist.12:00 PM, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, 10 First Street SE, Room 119, Washington, DC.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will hold a hearing entitled “Anticipating and Preventing Deadly Attacks on European Jewish Communities.” The hearing will feature remarks by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss; Rep Chris Smith, R-NJ; Rabbi Andrew Baker, personal representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism; Jonathan Biermann, executive director of crisis cell for the Belgian Jewish community; John Farmer, director of Rutgers University’s Faith-Based Communities Security Program; and Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network. 1:00 PM, 210 Cannon House Office Building.

Religious Minorities: A Way Forward,” focusing on “ISIL’s genocide against religious minorities.” The hearing will feature testimony by Robert George, chairman of USCIRF; Douglas Irvin-Erickson, director of the GMU Genocide Prevention Program; and Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. 2:00 PM, 1334 Longworth House Office Building.



The Johns Hopkins University SAIS will hold a discussion entitled “High Stakes at the Gulf Summit: What President Obama Should Get from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Meeting.” The discussion will feature remarks by Brian Dooley, director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defenders Program; Hala Aldosari, visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute; Matar Ebrahim Matar, former member of the Bahraini Parliament; and Andras Simonyi, managing director of the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations. 2:00 PM, SAIS, Rome Building, 1619 Massachusetts Ave NW, Auditorium, Washington, DC. Register Here.

The American Enterprise Institute will hold a conference call briefing entitled “Obama Goes to Riyadh: Opportunities, Challenges, and Implications for U.S. Middle East Policy.” The call will feature Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World; Muathal Wari, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress; Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI; Matthew McInnis, resident fellow at AEI; and Katherine Zimmerman, researcher. 10:00 AM, [email protected] for call-in information.

New America and Justice Matters will hold a film screening and discussion of “Guantanamo’s Child,” focusing on Omar Khadr, a 15 year-old arrested in Afghanistan and imprisoned at the Guantanamo detention center.” The event will feature commentary by Co-Director Michelle Shephard; and former Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jeffrey Eggers, senior fellow at New America. 6:30 PM, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th Street NW, Washington, DC.


The Atlantic Council will hold a discussion entitled “Where is Russia Headed?” The discussion will feature Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev; and Paula Dobriansky, senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 12:00 PM, Atlantic Council, 1030 15th Street NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC.


The GWU Elliott School of International Affairs will hold a discussion entitled “Recognizing and Countering Russian Propaganda.” The discussion will feature State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research Director Regina Faranda; former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Peter Pomerantsev, author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible”; Sergey Sanovich, professor at NYU; Ann Cooper, professor at Columbia; Chris Walker, vice president for studies at the National Endowment for Democracy; and James Kirchick, fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute. 8:30 AM, GWU Elliott School, 1957 E Street NW, Lindner Family Commons, Room 602, Washington, DC.

USIP will hold a discussion entitled “Protecting Religious Minorities: The Marrakesh Declaration.” The discussion will feature State Department Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey; Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies; and Susan Hayward, director of religion and inclusive societies at USIP. 1:30 PM, USIP, 2301 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC.

The Institute of World Politics will hold a lecture former Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence Lt. Gen. Mary Legere entitled “Leadership in Army Intelligence: A Reflection.” 4:30 PM, IWP, 1521 16th Street NW, Washington, DC.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center will hold a discussion entitled “Bearing Witness to Genocide: The Plight of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iraq.” The discussion will feature Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski; UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman; Mark Lagon, president of Freedom House; Susan Hayward, director for religion and peacebuilding at USIP; Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent at PBS’ “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly”; and Cameron Hudson, director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. 7:00 PM, The Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC.

Sign Up for Washington Week


Published on April 18, 2016


Related Posts

Seeking asylum?

If you do not already have legal representation, cannot afford an attorney, and need help with a claim for asylum or other protection-based form of immigration status, we can help.