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By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, July 6) – Some 20 foreigners have indicated their intention to seek "refugee protection" in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, even after two federal agencies recently urged the Attorney General’s Office to revise its proposed regulations on the treatment of asylum seekers in the islands.

Assistant AG Eric O’Malley, in an interview, said most of those who want to seek asylum are Chinese, while one or two are from Myanmar.

Refugee protection applies only to those who are facing deportation as ordered by the CNMI Superior Court or those denied entry at a Commonwealth port of entry.

It also applies to anyone who, "prior to removal from the Commonwealth, the individual expresses fear of persecution or torture in the designated country of removal."

But the AGO has yet to adopt proposed regulations on the protection of refugees from abuses in their home countries.

Government sources said Falun Dafa members on Saipan, for example, are likely to seek asylum.

The government of the People’s Republic of China has been cracking down on the group, which has pushed its members to flee to other countries.

Meanwhile, the delay in adopting refugee protection regulations was due to the recent comments filed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, resulting in "technical revisions" of the proposed rules.

O’Malley said the technical revisions were meant to clarify the terms in the regulations, and to effect needed "procedural changes" involving the rights of those who wish to seek asylum.

The phrase "country of origin," for example, was changed to "designated country of removal."

The 19-page proposed rules establish a procedural mechanism, implementing international treaties and conventions related to the status and treatment of persons fearing persecution or torture in the designated country of removal.

The treaties include the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment.

The AGO said implementation of these treaties and conventions is necessary as U.S. laws and regulations that implement said treaties do not apply to the Commonwealth.

Moreover, the proposed rules would implement the CNMI Asylum Law or Public Law 13-61.

As a result of these changes, AGO re-opened for another 30 days or up to the third week of July, the comment period for the proposed regulations on refugee protection.

The re-opening of the comment period comes on the heels of AG Pamela Brown’s announcement of the plan to deport some 250 former garment workers involved in the Fair Labor Standards Act civil action against Saipan garment manufacturers. The deportation would be implemented if the former garment workers, specifically those who have not found jobs and other legal means to stay, do not voluntarily present themselves to authorities by July 15.

The AGO’s proposed rules on asylum-seekers provide that no foreigner is entitled to refugee protection "unless that individual has been ordered deported by a court of competent jurisdiction or has been denied entry to the Commonwealth..."

But Brown said the system to handle refugees will not be set up until September.

O’Malley, for his part, said if the comment period ends this month, the AGO has yet to review whether to make major changes in the proposed regulations before deciding to adopt them.

Once the regulations are adopted, the AGO will create another office under its wing called that Office for Refugee Protection.

O’Malley said the attorneys under this office will receive specialized training in conducting protection hearings, among others.

Those who meet the criteria for refugees will be afforded a protection hearing, unless the AGO determines that the expression of fear is "manifestly unfounded in view of the applicable nonrefoulement standards" set forth.

The burden of proof is on the applicant for refugee protection under these regulations, to establish that his or her life or freedom would be threatened – or that he or she would be tortured – in the proposed country of removal on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group, or political opinion.

The proposed rules also said the decision of the AG "shall be final and non-reviewable."

July 6, 2004

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