Marathoner Calls for Asylum

Running Away:

Ethiopian Marathoner Makes Defiant Gesture for Asylum at Race’s Finish

If you were watching the Men’s Marathon yesterday at the Olympics, you may have been caught off guard by the actions of the Silver Medalist, Feyisa Lilesa, as he approached the finish line. Comfortably ahead of American and Bronze Medalist, Galen Rupp, and behind Gold Medalist, Eliud Kipchoge, he held his hands up in a seemingly X pattern above his head. In running, making an X signal above your head is a sign of distress and that you cannot articulate it, but you need assistance immediately.

Mr. Lilesa did not need medical assistance. Instead, his X was symbolic, and he was signaling that his life and the lives of his family members and tribe (Oromo) in Ethiopia are in danger. Post race comments that he gave clarified why he made the distress signal. They also elucidated the levels of danger that his family members and tribe suffer in Ethiopia as the ruling government has cracked down severely in certain areas of the country. The state broadcaster in Ethiopia did not air a replay of the finish because the X signal has been a symbol of solidarity among the Oromo tribe.

The comments that made indicate that he will be seeking asylum. Asylum is an internationally recognized basis for migration and countries in the Western Hemisphere often end up providing safehaven for those escaping persecution in other areas of the world. Countries have different laws for obtaining asylum. The United States’ standard for asylum is developed upon establishing past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution. It also requires that persecution to emanate from one of five protected grounds: race, religion, particular social group, political opinion, or nationality. These categories are developed through case law in immigration courts and through the federal courts. The government in the home country is either the persecutor or it is unable or unwilling to stop the persecution from occurring. Asylum can be a difficult proposition because the asylum seeker cannot just claim that his or her country is in chaos, civil war, rebellion, or unrest. The seeker needs to demonstrate past persecution has happened or that there is a well-founded fear he or she will be targeted for harm in the future.

Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

To seek asylum, a seeker must be in the United States. It can be a slog of a process, especially since adjudication times for affirmative asylum have skyrocketed into 2.5-3 years. For those unable to obtain asylum, there may still be an option through withholding of removal. Asylum cases require a lot of preparation and documentation to establish the veracity of the seeker’s claims. Filing for asylum affirmatively (with USCIS and not with the immigration court) requires an interview with an Asylum Officer at a designated Asylum Office.