What should you do if you believe your government is out to silence you? Well, most of us would stop (re)watching American TV series, Person Of Interest and go about our lives. But if you were Amos Yee, you’d flee the country and seek political asylum with a host country such as the United States.
While Person of Interest has proven to be prophetic in its vision about US government surveillance, and drawn parallels with whistle blower Edward Snowden’s case, Mr Yee’s “fear” seems to stem mainly from being conscripted along with his peers.
Do Edward Snowden and Amos Yee have legitimate grounds to seek political asylum? Let’s look at the facts.
(Featured Image: Screenshot of North by Northwest – 1959)
What is political asylum?
According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, people who seek political asylum do so because they have suffered prosecution, or are afraid they will be persecuted, due to a) race, b) religion, c) Nationality, d) membership in a particular social group, or e) political opinion. Political asylees will be allowed to live and work in the US, said private legal aid immihelp . Asylees can apply for permanent resident status a year after asylum status is granted. They can also bring spouses and children — under derivative asylum status — to join them if they’d included them at the point of application, said the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
What is the difference between immigrants, refugees and political asylees?
To the US, CNN defines an immigrant as “someone who chooses to resettle to another country”. The immigrant chooses to leave their home country in the hopes of building a new and better life for their family in a new country. According to Australian not-for-profit organisation, Settlement Services International (SSI), immigrants can study conditions in their new home, learn the language, plan the time to relocate, bring their belongings and have farewell parties before they go. The key difference is that they are free to go home — for any reasons — if and when they want.
A refugee, according to CNN, is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country”. The person or persons have to justify their refugee application by submitting proof that they will suffer persecution or even face death if they were to return home. Refugees may suffer significant trauma or have been tortured or ill-treated. The journey to safe haven is also often dangerous and many refugees risk their lives to leave, noted SSI. They cannot return home at will and only if the situation improves.
The CNN report also said not all violence in the country is grounds for refugee claim. “The violence has to be targeted to a person specifically, and that’s where things get complicated. Every case is different, and because of a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, children fall into a special class,” said the report.
According to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Action Act, US law ensures that children who seek asylum would get a full immigration hearing instead of being turned away or sent back. Children are defined as person or persons under 18 years of age. It should be noted Mr Yee will celebrate his 19th birthday on Oct 31 this year and may not enjoy privileges given to this special class.
Political asylum, as classed by the CNN report, is a “protection available to people who are (fearful for their lives) already in the US or are seeking admission at the US border”.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee succinctly puts it, “migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.”
The definitions may differ for other countries but are largely similar. After all, asylum laws are based on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which were passed to protect the refugees in World War II. Most Western countries offer protection to aliens who can show a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country, said Slate.
Asylum status may be revoked “if the subject breaks laws or if circumstances in the country of origin fundamentally change”, added the report.
In recent years, many countries have changed their stance on refugees. The US had tightened its asylum criteria in 1997, giving the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) more powers to deport.
Germany and Great Britain have reduced welfare benefits to asylum seekers with pending cases. Many European countries would rather asylum seekers relocate to other countries that they had travelled through and were considered safe for them.
France only accepts applicants who are feeling from state persecution. Asylees escaping from unofficial rebel persecution, in countries such as Sierra Leone, are not eligible. The US considers applicants from Haiti to be economic refugees and not political, and will not accept them, added the Slate report.
Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA). He had leaked notes on US-wide online citizen surveillance conducted jointly by the US and Britain to news agencies such as The Guardian.
Senior US politicians have accused him of committing treason. And he has been charged with espionage, “theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person”, reported The Guardian.
Is Snowden in danger?
Snowden’s “indiscretion” could land him in jail for up to 30 years, said Sputnik News. But, another whistle blower, Julian Assange thinks “he could possibly be kidnapped and killed”.
The WikiLeaks editor told The Guardian he had advised Snowden not to seek asylum in Latin America but to go to Russia as “it was one of the few places in the world where the American Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) influence did not reach”. Assange had also told reporters he feared for his own life.
Hollywood movies and American TV shows have portrayed the CIA with special units to silence detractors. And reel life is a mirror of real life, noted Inverse.
“Under the Bush Jr. and Obama regimes, the CIA has drastically stepped up a battle plan of manhunts, targeted killings, drone strikes, and even cyber attacks,” the news agency reported. That the incumbent CIA chief Mike Pompeo thinks Snowden should be executed could serve as sufficient warning.
Snowden has said in a 2014 interview that he had received threats on his life. His fears came from a Buzzfeed article that quoted an alleged Pentagon official, who said, “I’d love to put a bullet in his head”. An analyst at the NSA had said, “In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself.” The report also quoted an unnamed military source who said Snowden could be “poked” on the way home from the supermarket and be poisoned. “Snowden would think nothing of it at the time and starts to feel woozy. The next thing you know he dies in the shower”, said the source.
Russia has given a 3-year extension to Snowden’s stay in 2014 and his Russian lawyer have said he could apply for another extension after that. Snowden would be eligible to apply for citizenship after five years in Russia. It is not known if he would do so.
Amos Yee was brought up on charges of “wounding the religious feelings of Christians and Muslims” after he had produced a video on YouTube to “criticise Islam and Christianity for scripture that he said supported murder and belittled women”. This was a follow up to his earlier video posted when Singapore’s longest-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015. Ttitled “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead”, Yee called the Prime Minister “undoubtedly totalitarian” and likened him to Jesus. He had called them both “power hungry and malicious” figures who “deceive people into thinking they are compassionate and kind”. This led to complaints from Christians and Mr Yee was convicted of speaking out against Christians, reported The New York Times.
Is Yee in danger?
Yee had served four weeks in jail for his videos as well as his six weeks for wounding religious feelings.
In 2015, Yee was slapped outside the courthouse by a 49-year-old man. The father of three was jailed for three weeks. In 2016, Yee was released into Home Detention after his mother filed an urgent application. According to Community Action Network (CAN!), Yee was “threatened, slapped on the back and kicked while he was climbing up the stairs”, said Coconuts Singapore.
After Yee’s sentencing in 2015, he had received numerous threats of physical and sexual violence online, including one from a grassroots leader, reported The Online Citizen. The grassroots leader, Jason Tan Kok Whee was issued with a “stern warning”, said The Online Citizen. A 19-year-old was also charged with using criminal force on Yee at Jurong Point mall in 2016, reported The Straits Times.
Despite these atrocious threats and acts of violence, Yee had said “prison is bad… but not that bad” in a Facebook post this year. Yee also said the “picture of me leaving court looking traumatised was an act, and all the blog posts where I said I was depressed or suicidal in jail was a lie, all the while I felt completely fine in jail and honestly I created that act because it would create the greatest emotional reaction”.
Amos Yee (left) with Roy Ngerng (right) (Photo: thehearttruths)
Yee, who is currently held in an US prison after applying for political asylum, had told foreign news agencies that he regrets the inflammatory posts. Yee had told Reuters, “I told you, it is hate speech, it is overly rude, it isn’t good activism. I completely regret making those videos.” Referring to the videos, Yee had also told The New York Times, “I think the entertainment value of my content actually pushed activism a few steps back.”
Rights groups, including the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Phil Robertson had called for the US to recognise Yee’s application, saying Yee had faced consistent harassment and bullying for his view on politics and religion. HRW said Yee had been subjected to “a sustained pattern of persecution” by the Singapore government.
However, observers have downplayed the extent of the troubled teen’s case. Former MediaCorp editorial director PN Balji told The South China Morning Post, “Singapore is unlikely to want to sensationalise this case or protest this move (to apply for political asylum). Amos Yee is not a wanted man in Singapore and has paid the price for his acts… if he wants to love in the US and he is granted asylum, that is his human right.”
Gopalan Nair, an attorney in California who has handled asylum cases, said: “Amos Yee has not suffered any past persecution at the hands of the Singapore government and neither has he any evidence of a well founded fear of future persecution at the hands of the Singapore government.
“He was merely given 2 short jail terms for hate speech against religion, a just and fair law in a multi racial crowded island. There is no evidence whatsoever that if he is returned to Singapore island he will be persecuted. And neither was he persecuted in the past. This is a man who believes he has a right to insult religions and therefore should be granted asylum in the US by reason thereof.”
Mr Nair blogs under the Singapore Dissident website and was a former Singapore-born citizen.
Yee has said he is unwilling to return to Singapore, as he does not want to be conscripted.
Political Asylum Fall 2012 Idoll Magazine (Photo: pictureicon)
Running from Singapore
In a 2010 article, Asia Sentinel said as many as 15 percent of Singapore born citizens have sought asylum. It cited an unnamed online source that put Singapore’s average outflow at 26.11 migrants per 1,000 citizens – the second highest in the world. East Timor topped the charts at 51.07. The website said at least some (of the asylees) are believed to have sought asylum because they were persecuted for being gay. Asia Sentinel also said a majority of the 50 applications they had identified were rejected. Another 15 applications for refugee status in Australia between 2004 and 2009 were denied.
The rate of rejection “is a testament to how perceptions of Singapore’s approach to human rights have improved over the last 20 years”, said the report. It had noted the Singapore government had made “small but significant” steps to towards a globally-accepted democracy by abolishing the detention without trial of political opponents and breaking down institutional and societal discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gays.
While Yee has drawn flak online for his incendiary videos, he is not fearful for his safety by his own admission. Instead the enterprising youth is using the media attention and time in the limelight to bring focus to his agenda.
And that is pretty smart of him, even if it pisses off citizens.