Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0143
October 23, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

GREG TORODE: I was in a taxi hitting downtown Washington, and I got a call from Hong Kong. My newspaper was just about to go to deadline, so as you can imagine, it was quite a bit of panic at the newsroom.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, how foreign journalists in America covered the September 11 terrorist attacks.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: And later, coping with millions of new refugees in Central Asia.

Elisa Massimino: One of those most critical values that we share as a nation is the importance of protecting people who are repressed. That’s who refugees are.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. In the weeks since September 11 many Americans remain glued to their televisions and radios, not wanting to miss a beat as the events unfold in the war on terrorism. And they’re not alone.

PORTER: The story has captivated millions around the world who were shocked that such acts of destruction could happen in the United States. From Washington, DC, correspondent Judith Smelser reports on how foreign reporters are informing their readers, viewers, and listeners about the story that’s changed the world.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: The US government has warned Americans both here in the United States and overseas….

[A series of brief sound bites from newscasters speaking in various languages)

JUDITH SMELSER: On a rooftop in Washington, overlooking the White House, correspondents from television networks all over the world beam live reports back to their home countries, where the appetite for the story is almost as large as it is here in the US.

CHRISTOF LANG: Obviously the collapse of the Twin Towers was an event-in my opinion it’s maybe the biggest event since World War II.

SMELSER: Christof Lang is a correspondent for Germany’s largest television, RTL. He believes his viewers have a special empathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks, and for that reason he says his reporting on the story has been strikingly similar to that of his American counterparts.

LANG: I think, in that particular case, there are not many differences. Usually there are, but here I think almost everybody except some Muslim extremists are feeling the same way. I mean, so many German people-German people tend to travel a lot. So many German people have been in New York. So many German people have been on top of the World Trade Center. I mean, I think they have their own feelings about how that must feel.

SMELSER: Mr. Lang is also looking at his own country’s connections to the story. Several of the suspected hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks spent time in Germany.

LANG: There was a certain concern that America might criticize Germany for having terrorists like Mohammed Atta in our country for quite awhile, pulling strings without anybody noticing, but in the end, I mean everybody was in the same situation, I guess.

SMELSER: That idea, that people all over the world are equally affected by America’s tragedy, seems to be a constant theme in the reporting of many foreign correspondents, from places as far away as India and as nearby as Mexico.

[A newscaster reports in Spanish]

SMELSER: Armando Guzman is a correspondent for Mexico’s Azteca Television. He says his reporting has focused largely on how the American people are reacting to the crisis. But he says his viewers also have an especially strong stake in how the American economy is reacting.

ARMANDO GUZMAN: When Wall Street closed for a week, we closed for a week. So that’s how tied to you we are. And so yes, everything that happens with the economic recovery, with the package that the President presents to the Congress, to the American people, all that is of great interest to us.

SMELSER: As Mr. Guzman then pointed out, the links between the US and Mexico are political as well as economic, especially since President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox have forged such close ties. Mr. Guzman says that fact does color his way of looking at the current crisis, but so too do the many personal links between his country and America. Many Mexican immigrants were directly and tragically affected, especially by the attack on the World Trade Center.

GUZMAN: A number of Mexicans died in that, in that instance. And, and they were not businessmen or they were not high executives. They were workers. Many of them work in restaurants and in the service industry and so were people of not very big means. And, and they were workers that were young, trying to find a new place in society and a new life in America. And so we respect that. And it touches very deeply.

SMELSER: It’s a topic that many foreign correspondents have had to cover, with at least 60 countries losing nationals in the New York attack. But some reporters are more interested in the straight story out of official Washington.

[A newscaster reports in Russian]

SMELSER: Vladimir Chernyshev, a correspondent for Russia’s TV-6, is one of those. His job, he says, is to report the statements, movements, and actions of the people calling the shots in this new war, Mr. Chernyshev’s producer, Mikhail Solyev.

MIKHAIL SOLYEV: We are just reporting what happens. What, what they have told and what has happened here. Yeah. And we don’t make any decisions about what-we don’t try to predict the situation, you see.

SMELSER: [speaking to Solyev] Right.

SMELSER: [Again reporting to the Common Ground audience] But Russia’s TV-6 is interested in the human angle, too, just like its counterparts in other countries. Producer Mikhail Solyev says he’s paid special attention to what he called “the mood on the street.”

SOLYEV: We were in a hamburger shop here and we saw that the people were speaking, like two days before, about their favorite football players and so on.

SMELSER: The note of incredulity in Mr. Solyev’s voice may reflect the fact that for ten years, during the 1980s, the Soviet Union waged a bloody and unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan. He, along with many of his viewers back in Russia, may feel that they know more about what the US is getting into than do those Americans who were blithely discussing football in a hamburger joint.

[sound of typing on a computer keyboard]

SMELSER: While television correspondents are the faces of the crisis in their home countries, newspaper journalists in Washington have found themselves suddenly in the spotlight as well. At the Washington Foreign Press Center, many print journalists gathered to watch briefings, do research, file stories, and compare notes with their colleagues. Asked to describe their experiences on September 11, they each had a story to tell. Lambros Papantoniu writes for the Greek paper, The Free Press.

Lambros Papantoniu: Before even I followed the story I got an urgent telephone call from Athens, from my editor-in-chief for the section, who say, “Mr. Lambros, keep on eye, because from now on that is number one issue.”

SMELSER: Greg Torode Reports for Hong Kong’s South China Morning News.

GREG TORODE: I was in a taxi hitting downtown Washington and I got a call from Hong Kong. My newspaper was just about to go to deadline. We only had two or three hours, so as you can imagine it was quite a bit of panic at the newsroom. Very quickly we were aware of the implications and we turned, we turned the newspaper into a special edition and we had a, a midday edition, which is very unusual. And we had, like 12 pages devoted to it.

SMELSER: And Stefano March, writes for Italy’s Il Tempo.

STEFANO MARCH: That terrible 11th of September, unfortunately, for all of us journalists there were very few opportunities to make reflections on what was happening on what had been happening that day. So I had to report on almost everything without having enough time to, to, to make deeper analysis on the causes and consequences and, and collateral situations.

SMELSER: But in the weeks after that chaotic day these journalists were able to take a step back and look at the implications of the unthinkable tragedy. And some of them, like Mr. March, have been more than a little critical of their colleagues in the American press.

STEFANO MARCH: I underscore that apparently media have accepted almost everything, every lead, every evidence, or every statement on the investigation, or that the law enforcement or political authorities have made. So that they have unanimously accepted without any specific evidence that Osama bin Laden is behind this, this series of monstrous attacks.

SMELSER: That’s a criticism that was echoed by some other foreign journalists in varying degrees of ferocity. But just outside the Foreign Press Center, Chidanand Rajghata with The Times of India, says that’s not important to his readers.

CHIDANAND RAJGHATA: In India it really doesn’t matter, the individual, you know, the, the sense in India is that these are terrorist organizations and there are several of them. They kind of mutate from one to another. So it doesn’t matter if it’s called Al Queda or Al Bhattar, or Jaishemuhammad or Lashkatetoba. And they’re all interchangeable and the characters keep changing. So there is no so great an emphasis in India on who did it. Was it bin Laden? No. I mean, nobody is holding their breath to find that out. They just know that these are terrorist organizations and they have to be cleaned out.

SMELSER: And, just like their colleagues in the broadcast media, print journalists like George Torode From the South China Morning News, have been looking at the extraordinary emotions that the tragedy has brought out in the American people.

GEORGE TORODE When I’ve had the chance I’ve done pieces looking at the outpouring of patriotism and trying to explain what that is in the American, in the American society that brings that out. And trying to give that balance so people overseas just don’t react to it like a bunch of flag waving, trying explain why, why it’s like that here. I’m aware that surveys over the last 10 years say Americans have become more patriotic and more religious as well. And it’s been interesting to see the two combined. I was very interested to see the National Cathedral mourning service, that was quite dramatic.

SMELSER: Mr. Torode says that level of national pride is a foreign concept for his readers in Hong Kong, and that it’s therefore particularly engaging. And so just as America has increased it’s interest in the outside world since September 11, so the world has focused its attention on America, in the wake of a tragedy on US soil, with implications far beyond the US border. For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser.

[A series of brief sound bites from newscasters speaking in various languages)

MCHUGH: How America and the world are dealing with the refugee crisis in Central Asia, next on Common Ground.

Elisa Massimino: The US has done an enormous amount in terms of contributing to the international system to protect refugees.

MCHUGH: Prior to the September 11 attacks on the United States there were 22 million refugees in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees fears that two million more may be created by the war in Central Asia.

PORTER: Protecting the rights of refugees, especially in the midst of armed conflict, is extremely difficult and extremely important. To learn more about refugee rights and the role the United States plays in protecting refugees, I spoke with Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Elisa Massimino: Under international law, defined in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1951 UN Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside of his or her country of nationality and who either has suffered persecution or has a well-founded fear-those are the critical words-of persecution on account of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

PORTER: Under international law we have the definition. What are their rights?

Massimino: Well, they have-the, the most basic right of a refugee is not to be forced back to a place where they would suffer persecution. That is the core human right of refugees. Then, of course, refugees share in all of the other rights that are outlined in the other human rights treaties. You know, the right not to be tortured; the right to economic, social, and cultural rights; the rights that all of us share, that become more difficult for refugees to enjoy when they’re not protected by their home country. Refugees are really kind of the, you know, the embodiment of human rights violations. They become the responsibility of the international community when they’re governments either persecute them or can no longer protect them and ensure the enjoyment of their basic human rights. And what the world community has, has articulated in these treaties is that when that happens and a person is forced to cross the border and leave their home country, they become the responsibility of the international community.

PORTER: And every country who’s a party to those treaties has some obligation?

Massimino: That’s right.

PORTER: Sometimes when I hear about refugee rights I think about these people who are fleeing all kinds of persecution, while on the other side of the border bureaucrats wait there with forms to be filled out in triplicate or something. How do you protect refugee rights when it inevitably is in a terrible situation? They’re always-it’s not an ideal situation when you’re trying to protect refugee rights. So how do you deal with that?

Massimino: Well, there are two contexts, really, in which you think about this. There’s one context which we rarely encounter in the United States and that is situations of mass influx. Where there is, you know, this is what we saw in the context of the Great Lakes Region in Africa; it’s what we are seeing right now in Afghanistan: mass movements of people fleeing war or the threat of war. And in those situations many countries are very generous and open their borders, take refugees in, establish camps with the help of UNHCR, try to meet the basic needs and protect the basic rights of those refugees.

But you know, the situation we’re most familiar with in the United States is one of people coming in and going through a formal application process, through the Immigration Service, in which you fill out these nine-page forms explaining why it is that you’re asking for protection. And that is an incredibly bureaucratic process and has become more so over the last five years, as Congress has enacted more and more restrictive laws undermining the capacity of refugees to seek asylum here.

PORTER: You mentioned earlier the unstable times that we find ourselves in: armies are on the move, threats are being made. These really are the prime ingredients for creating refugees, aren’t they?

Massimino: They really are. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the region of Afghanistan right now. There’s a million people on the move. All of the borders have been closed, the bordering countries with Afghanistan. And what was already a desperate situation in humanitarian terms has become more so over the last two weeks, as people are running literally in fear of their lives. People who, if they had been able to get out earlier, might have been fleeing from their own government’s policies are now fleeing as they’re waiting for bombs to drop on them.

PORTER: Before we go any further, we mentioned the term “internally displaced people,” I believe, a minute ago. Tell us the difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person.

Massimino: Well, the primary difference in law is that, you’ll recall when I said what a refugee is, it’s somebody who’s crossed a border, left their country. And so the primary difference is that an internally displaced person is a refugee, if you will, who hasn’t left their country. And that can happen for lots of reasons. I mean, most refugees, as you probably would think, don’t want to leave their countries. And if they, if the do leave they don’t want to go very far because they hope to go back. They have businesses, they have property, they have family. They all want to be in their homes, as we all do.

PORTER: What should the world be doing right now to prepare for or to take care of these people we know of there, and who knows as this thing expands, the massive numbers of refugees that could be created there and elsewhere. What should we be doing to prepare for that?

Massimino: Right now I think that the US ought to be taking the lead with UNHCR in trying to bring other countries along in not only raising the enormous amounts of money that it’s going to take to beat the basic needs of food, shelter, health care, for the people of Afghanistan who are fleeing or trying to flee. But then it’s also really important to find a way to have a plan to figure out how to separate out those people and determine which one of them-which ones of them-are entitled to refugee protection. As we talked about the refugee definition, it’s actually quite a narrow definition. It’s difficult to prove that you’re being persecuted on the account of one of these five grounds. And there are a lot of, there are a lot of legal interpretations of that definition. And there needs-there are gonna be, you know, categories of people who are amongst those who have been on the move in Afghanistan who may not fit that definition, but nonetheless need humanitarian aid.

So the question now is, whose responsibility is it? Is it UNHCR’s, the UN agency charged with refugee protection? Is it the United States’ responsibility, its policies having contributed to this disaster? Is it the responsibility of the neighboring states to accept refugees and protect them and separate out those who are not entitled to refugee status? These are very complex issues and they will have to be decided in a context which they are gonna be competing interests: competing strategic interests, financial interests, between UNHCR, Pakistan, for example, and the United States. It’s very complicated and you know, the US government has been, has been talking about its willingness, admirably, to contribute more and more food aid. The US was already basically the largest provider of aid to the people of Afghanistan but it’s gonna be a lot more complicated than, than just kicking in the bucks here. It’s a really complicated situation.

PORTER: Let’s talk about the American role in this. I think some people might be surprised. They look at the United States, its geographic location, and think that not many refugees happen to arrive on American shores. But that’s not the case is it?

Massimino: Two things are important to note here. One is that the United States is by far, by many, many times, the largest donor to UNHCR. And therefore, because UNHCR is essentially governed by a group of governments, member governments, has a large role in helping to set the policy of UNHCR. So that’s a very important dynamic to keep in mind. So the US has done an enormous amount in terms of contributing to the international system to protect refugees. The number of refugees that actually come to the United States seeking protection in the context of the number of refugees worldwide is incredibly small; less than one percent of all refugees ever even seek protection in the United States. Lots and lots of immigrants come back and forth across our borders every year, but the number of asylum seekers and refugees is really quite small. In fact, the number of refugees that have been resettled into the United States-these are people who have been identified abroad as refugees and the US through a humanitarian program seeks to bring them here and help them create new lives-has actually been decreasing over the last eight years. It now stands at, I think, less than 50,000 a year.

PORTER: We know that in 1996 there was a change in law that changed the way the United States deals with asylum seekers and refugees who arrive here. Tell us something about what happened in that, under that 1996 law.

Massimino: It totally changed the system for determining how refugees could seek asylum in the United States. This is not the system whereby people are determined to be refugees overseas and resettled, but this is the asylum system as we know it here. When people come and are fleeing repression and they apply for political asylum in the US. That’s the system that was utterly changed for arriving asylum seekers. What happened was that what the law did was create several new hurdles that asylum seekers would have to cross before they would even be permitted to apply for asylum. The law created a presumption-which in my view is a kind of a backwards presumption-a presumption that if someone comes here without documentation, valid travel documents-either a passport, visa, those kinds of things-then that person would be assumed to be prohibited from applying for asylum. So it created this presumption that if you don’t have good documents then you must not, you know, you must be a fraud, you must not have a good, a good reason for coming here. When, in fact, those of us who spent a lot of time dealing with refugees, particularly refugees who have to come here to seek asylum, know that it’s quite rare for a genuine refugee to have valid travel documents. To ask for a passport from a country that has you in its sights as a political dissident or someone that they’re targeting for persecution, could in itself be quite dangerous. So most refugees have to flee without valid travel documents and certainly without the time to get a valid visa and that sort of thing. So many, many refugees have to flee on forged or no documents. So that’s the presumption, the kind of, sort of worldview of who refugees are that stands behind this ‘96 law.

What it created was a system called “expedited removal,” under which a person arrives without documents or with false documents, they have to convince an inspector, an INS inspector-the guy who you show your passport to when you come back from overseas, in the line next door that’s not US citizens-that person gets to-and that’s called primary inspection-person goes there and does not have documents, valid travel documents, or has documents that the INS suspects are fraudulent, they go into what’s called secondary inspection, which is in a place in the airport where no one can go-it’s behind the, the ropes as it were-and is interrogated by another INS inspector. That’s during the thing called secondary inspection. And in that process an asylum seeker must ask for asylum, express his or her fear of return, and convince that INS inspector that they have a fear of returning home. In order to be then forwarded to another interview, which is conducted in jail. And then there is another screening interview called a “credible fear” screening interview,” that’s done by an asylum officer, that goes into greater detail about a person’s fear. And if that person is convinced that, that, that the fear is credible, the person is maintained in jail but may then apply for asylum and present a case, and then has to convince an immigration judge.

PORTER: At any of those steps-the primary inspection or the secondary inspection, are you saying the person could be rejected right there with no right for appeal?

Massimino: At secondary inspection the secondary inspector is empowered to sign an order of removal that is not reviewable by any judge. And all that’s required before the person is put back on a plane and sent back to their home country is the signature or even voice approval of another inspector. The Lawyer’s Committee published a report last year called “Is This America?,” in which we outlined numerous cases of mistaken deportation and terrible abuse at the airports, particularly during this phase of secondary inspection.

PORTER: So there are some attempts being made right now to change this 1996 law. Is that correct?

Massimino: Yes. In fact there has been quite a bipartisan support for changes to the ‘96 asylum provisions in particular. Over the course of the years actually since the ‘96 law was passed, as I mentioned it’s a sweeping law that affects a lot of areas of immigration law; Congress has come to realize that many of the provisions that it enacted really went too far.

PORTER: There’s certainly a great deal of fear and prejudice sort of coming to the surface in the United States right now following the September 11 attacks. In this climate is it possible to expect Americans to make it even easier for people from outside to, to come in?

Massimino: Your question points out why it’s so key to keep working towards educating people about who refugees are. Refugees are a very unique type of immigrant because they left their country not out of choice, but out of necessity to survive. You know, we talk to refugees every day in this office and we represent hundreds and hundreds of asylum seekers from more than 50 different countries. And almost all of them tell us that they came here because of the values that America stands for. And this is a time where we are very much drawn to and talking about our values, because that’s part of what was under attack on September 11. And I really think that we can expect-I do expect-that Americans are gonna pull together to support our values. And one of those most critical values that we share as a nation is the importance of protecting people who are repressed. That’s who refugees are.

PORTER: That is Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security