Applying for Asylum: What If Your Persecution Didn't Come From the Government?

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In many asylum cases, applicants have been or will be persecuted by the government of their home country, such as the military or the police. That fits naturally with the basic eligibility requirements for a grant of asylum in the U.S.: You must prove that you are unable or unwilling to return to your home country because you have been persecuted in the past or you have a well-founded fear of persecution if you return. You must also prove that the persecution that occurred (or that you fear will occur) is based on one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or your political opinion. (Learn more about what is needed to prove that you are eligible for asylum at “Asylum or Refugee Status: Who Is Eligible?”)

Nevertheless, not all U.S. asylum claims of persecution need to, or do in fact come from official government actors If the persecution that you fear does not come from your country’s government, you will need to not only prove that you have been persecuted or have a credible fear of persecution based on one of the five protected grounds, but also that your government is unwilling or unable to control your persecutors. You may also need to show that you could not escape persecution by these non-state actors by relocating to another city or region within the country.

Examples of Persecution by Nonstate Actors

If you are going to prove that you were persecuted by forces beyond your government’s control, you will need to make especially sure that their actions rise to the level of persecution. There is no express definition of “persecution” in U.S. asylum law. The courts have stated that simple “harassment” or bad country conditions do not amount to persecution for a claim of asylum. The following is not an exclusive list of possibilities; however, asylum officers and immigration judges have found that these activities rise to the level of persecution:

  • serious physical abuse
  • sexual abuse, rape, or torture
  • coercive medical treatment (such as female genital mutilation or forced sterilization)
  • disproportionate and severe punishment for certain criminal offenses (such as the death penalty or long prison sentences for violations of laws against sodomy or premarital sex)
  • severe discrimination and economic persecution (such not being allowed to work or own land due to race, religion, or ethnicity)
  • continued interrogation, detention, or imprisonment without reasonable cause
  • denial of benefits available to most individuals (such as freedom to go outside, the right to vote, the ability to work and travel, and the ability to associate with friends and neighbors)
  • continued threats made to end life, or to commit any of the above acts.

For more information on the types of evidence to include with your application to show that you have been persecuted or fear persecution, see “Preparing Persuasive Documents for Your Asylum Application.”

Who May Count as a Nongovernment “Persecutor”

Who the U.S. asylum officers or judges will recognize as a credible nongovernment persecutor may vary depending on the nature of the persecution and the facts surrounding your asylum claim. Some common nongovernment actors who have been named as persecutors in asylum applications are:

  • guerrilla, rebel, or paramilitary organizations
  • gangs and other violent groups
  • ethnic or religious clans, tribes, and other nonofficial entities that may have instituted their own “laws” and justice system
  • family members (common in claims involving female genital mutilation, forced marriage, domestic violence, “honor-related violence,” or other gender-based persecution cases)
  • political or other known opponents, and
  • society at large (for example, if you are claiming persecution based on gender or sexual orientation, you can show that this persecution is widespread due to societal norms).

An experienced immigration attorney can best advise you on your chances of success based on the individual details of your asylum case.

How to Show That Your Government Is Unable or Unwilling to Control Your Persecutors

Next you will need to show that the government of your home country is unable or unwilling to control your persecutors. Again, how you can do this will greatly depend on both the political landscape of your country and the details of your asylum case.

In general, asylum applicants can do this by showing that the police, ruling parties, and other governmental agencies either sympathize with your persecutors or are powerless to stop them because of the political, economic, or social conditions in the country. For example, perhaps the ruling party of your country mostly comprises members of a religious group that has persecuted you and the party will not prosecute this group for its criminal acts. Or the government may have a poor human rights record with respect to women or racial or ethnic minorities. In times of war, destruction, or violent conflict, the police and other law enforcement agencies may be rendered powerless and therefore unable to protect you from your persecutors.

You should assemble a convincing evidence package to support your claim that the government cannot protect you from harm. This could include human rights reports, country conditions reports, witness and expert statements, and newspaper articles.

How to Show That Internal Relocation Would Not Save You From Persecution

Even if you establish that you have a well-founded fear of persecution from a nongovernment entity based on one of the five protected grounds AND you can show that the government is unwilling or unable to control your persecutor, the asylum officer or immigration judge may decide to deny your claim because you could be reasonably expected to move within the country to escape persecution. (This is part of why you should consult an experienced immigration attorney before submitting your asylum application.)

In order to avoid this finding, you should submit as much evidence as possible in your application to show that:

  1. the persecution that you fear is widespread throughout the country
  2. you would not be safe from persecution by internally relocating, and
  3. it is not reasonable for you to move due to civil strife, geographic and economic limitations, or social and cultural constraints such as age, gender, or health.

The proof necessary to show this will differ based on the nature of your case. Let’s say you have been persecuted by your parents who are forcing you to marry. In this case, you could provide evidence that forced marriage is common throughout the country, that you lack the financial means to move, and that you cannot be expected to relocate because single women without family and who live on their own are stigmatized and have no way to support themselves. You could also submit examples of children in your country who were unable to escape violent reprisal from their parents by simply “running away from home.”

If you are claiming persecution by a paramilitary group, you should submit as much documentation as possible to show that this group is active nationwide and that people similarly situated as you have “been caught” when they attempted to relocate. You might also show that you should not reasonably be expected to move because you are a senior citizen or require medical care and that moving to a remote location to escape your persecutors would be a severe hardship.

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