By Alexandra Dufresne

Alexandra Dufresne is a Trustee of Asylos. She is an American lawyer specialising in refugee and child law and policy. She taught seminars in refugee law and policy at Yale from 2006-2015 and now teaches law at several Swiss institutions of higher learning.

This weekend marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica. Beginning on July 11, 1995, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb military forces in the United Nations “safe haven” of Srebrenica. It was the largest mass murder and the only act of genocide in Europe since World War II. 

For people of my generation, Srebrenica was a defining moment

Most Asylos volunteers were just infants or toddlers when this atrocity was committed; a handful were not yet born. But for people of my generation, it was a defining moment. Many survivors of the massacre are in middle age, roughly the same age as me, my friends and my colleagues. Children who lost their older brothers, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers in the massacre are now young adults and young parents themselves.  

In the summer of 1995, I was at university in the United States, an ocean away.  Growing up in the States in the 1970s and 1980s, we had learned about the horrors of the Holocaust in school; many of us had read Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Number the Stars.  For many in my generation, our view of Europe was tainted by the understanding that it was the place from which so many of our families and friends’ families had fled. Grandparents and uncles often refused to talk about the war, but as children we felt its shadow.  

But after the Berlin Wall fell, that image of Europe was mixed with a heady optimism. The horrors of the Holocaust seemed something of the past-- something that would “never again” be allowed to happen. Hence, the shock and outrage was palpable when in the fall of 1995, just over one year after the Rwandan genocide, news of the scale of the massacre of Srebrenica--- and of the UN’s failure to protect its “safe haven” and of the failure of Dutch peacekeepers to protect the men and boys-- made the newspapers. As a student of human rights, the Srebrenica genocide-- and the West’s failure to prevent it-- became a touchstone. 

When my client -- traumatized by murder of his father and uncle-- engaged in foolish behavior, as teen boys sometimes do, the government put its resources into locking him up and deporting him

Eight years later, I met a 17-year old Bosnian Muslim teen in a rural immigration jail. The Department of Homeland Security was trying to deport him for some criminal activity committed as a juvenile. This was shocking for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he had been admitted as a refugee to the United States, together with his mother and younger siblings.   

This young man’s father and uncle were among the over 8,000 individuals murdered at Srebrenica, when he was a boy. Not surprisingly, he had experienced severe trauma, as had his mother, who left her homeland as a young widow with three young children.  

U.S. immigration law and policy are often haphazard, cruel and self-defeating. My client’s family had been invited by the U.S. government to resettle as refugees as survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. But when a teenage son -- traumatized by murder of his father and uncle and the terror of the war -- engaged in foolish behavior, as teen boys sometimes do, the government put its resources into locking him up and deporting him. Our client had no family left in Bosnia. Traumatized, angry, and still just a kid, he could not have survived on his own, without his family, in the country he had fled. And having lost so much, there was no way his mother could bear to lose her son.

After months of work, my client won his case for one reason only: there was an enormous wealth of information, documented in painstaking detail, about the genocide at Srebrenica and its aftermath

After months of work, during which our client remained locked up in jail with adults, and without psychological or educational services, our client won his case. He won his case for one reason only: by that time, there was an enormous wealth of information, documented in painstaking detail, about the genocide at Srebrenica and its aftermath. Teams of college and law students, including a college student who could read the language, compiled a dossier documenting in excruciating detail exactly what our client had fled, and exactly what he would face if returned alone, without family, to the place of his trauma. The overworked Immigration Judge had no choice: he couldn't stomach deporting a teenager, regardless of his behavior, in light of this evidence. The mountain of evidence also spared our client’s mother from having to testify in full detail to everything she had endured. 

We were able to win this case because I worked at a law school, supported by a team of committed and ambitious students who were paying for the opportunity to learn the trade-- a rarefied and unusual position. When people asked my litigation strategy, I would reply “scorched earth” or “may no stone go unturned.” This is a nice way of saying: be obsessive, and do not take any chances. This is the luxury of an academic environment.

Asylos supports asylum seekers and refugees by providing, free of charge, game-changing and labor-intensive human rights work 

But for every refugee who gets assistance from a law school clinic, countless more are forced to go through the administrative or court process alone, or to scrape together the funds for overworked counsel who have only a few hours to devote to their case. Each detained refugee like my client shares a pod with dozens of other people, each with his or her own story and trauma. There are just not enough pro bono or low-fee lawyers to go around, and refugees and asylum-seekers lack the money to hire private counsel who will take the time to track down every lead.  

This is where the work of Asylos is so important. Asylos supports asylum seekers and refugees by filling the gap - by providing, free of charge, the game-changing and labor-intensive human rights work required in cases like this. The young professionals and PhD students who volunteer their time and skill for Asylos have the “luxury” of leaving no stone unturned. In so doing, Asylos can make the difference in close cases.

One way to honour the dead is to protect the loved ones they left behind

Our efforts to honor the dead always fall short. If you have ever visited a World War II museum, read a human rights report, or read the news from Syria or Yemen, perhaps you know the feeling of being too late. It is always too late. 

But there are tiny steps we can take. One way is to commemorate the anniversary of a crime of this scale with the requisite solemnity. Another way is to protect the loved ones they left behind. We can protect their loved ones from additional fear, trauma, and separation, even if that just means documenting in excruciating and painstaking detail what happened, so that no one is unjustly deported to the country from which they fled.

If you are an attorney or NGO worker representing asylum-seekers, you can access Asylos’ research database and make a research request on our Resources Page