The Ivorian family.
The Ivorian family. Photo by Motti Milrod
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A family from the Ivory Coast whose application for refugee status was denied is worried their 6-year-old daughter will be forced to undergo female circumcision if they are deported from Israel. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority in the Interior Ministry turned down the family's asylum request.

The mother was circumcised in the Ivory Coast, or Cote d'Ivoire as it is officially known, when she was a child, and it was made clear to her by her family in the Ivory Coast that her daughter would also face the same practice if the family returned.

The family says its asylum request was rejected without ever being examined properly. The immigration authority says the family's application never raised the issue of their daughter being subjected to genital mutilation.

The family has remained in Israel under the rubric of the group protection granted to all Ivory Coast citizens here seeking refugee status. But as of a month ago, this collective protection ended and the immigration authority started to arrest and deport those citizens of the Ivory Coast who did not leave Israel on their own accord. The Foreign Ministry, and in its wake the immigration authority, no longer consider the Ivory Coast a place where a civil war is underway or one where citizens' lives are considered to be in danger.

Two recent court decisions ruled that once the collective protection against deportation ended, citizens of those countries were entitled to submit individual asylum requests, as the end of collective protection did not necessarily mean there was no danger to specific individuals from those countries.

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel is a signatory, recognizes female genital mutilation as an act of persecution. The convention spells out that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

To receive refugee status, the asylum seeker must prove he or she meets one or more of these criteria.

Gender can also be the basis for defining persecution, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ruled in 2002. Female genital mutilation is specifically mentioned in the UNHCR rules as a recognized form of persecution based on gender.

The UNHCR rules also relate in detail to women who are persecuted because they do not submit to social codes based on religion or tradition, and punishing a women for such disobedience and refusal to behave according to religious codes can be construed as creating a real fear of persecution based on religious belief. Such persecution does not necessarily have to be carried out by authorities, and persecution by various groups within the population or by individuals - if the authorities do not act to prevent it - can also be considered to be persecution under the UN refugee rules, and qualify the victim for refugee status.

"It was before my daughter was born, and I didn't know I would get pregnant, or whether I would have a boy or a girl. Afterward I didn't tell because I had a visa and I never really thought I would have to return to the Ivory Coast. Today the threat seems real to me," said the mother.

After the immigration authority rejected the asylum request, the family filed an urgent petition to the Tel Aviv District Court. The family asked the court to order the immigration authority to examine the substance of their request and refrain from deporting them before such an examination was completed.

The woman descrihed in her court petition how such mutilation is commonplace in the tribe she comes from, and how it is carried out. "Usually the aunt or grandmother carries it out, or they choose an older woman from the village ... Usually they circumcise a number of girls together, up to 20 or 30, using the same knife, which is not sterilized at any stage," said the mother. "Usually they cut off the entire clitoris ... It is clear that in many cases there are infections and diseases, and there are even cases where girls die as a result of blood loss and infection," said the mother. She said it was made clear to her by both her mother and her sister that her daughter would face such a mutilation and would be not be allowed to escape it.

Smadar Ben-Natan, the woman's lawyer, said she was an exceptionally brave woman fighting for a better life for her daughter. Ben-Natan added that while the Interior Ministry announced it would examine asylum requests on an individual basis for Ivory Coast citizens when it cancelled the collective protection, in practice it has refused to examine individual requests.

Reports from UNHCR and UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF ) state that the Ivory Coast has one of the highest national rates of female genital mutilation in West Africa. Nearly 40% of the country's women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation, mostly what is referred to as Type II mutilation which involves removal of the clitoris and inner labia. The prevalence of such acts is extremely high in the country's northern region, 87.8% of women; northwest, 87.9%; and west, 73.3%.

The UN agencies say there is a strong social consensus around these mutilations. The main reasons given to justify such practices in the Ivory Coast are that it tests the courage and endurance of the young girls; it guarantees the wife's faithfulness; it is a ritual of purification and social integration - preparation to life as a housewife; and finally, it is a religious requirement.

Female genital mutilation is practiced among most ethnic and religious groups and within all layers of society in the Ivory Coast, but prevalence is greater among certain ethnic groups and tribes; among the Muslim population; in rural areas; and among women and girls who have not had access to education. Young girls and even babies are increasingly affected by such practices, and the phenomenon is taking on more of an urban character, reports the UN.

The Immigration Authority responded: "In 2008 the request for asylum was denied after it was considered by the advisory committee on refugee matters. [The decision] was based on the opinion of the [UN Representative of the High] Commissioner for Refugees, which stated that the petitioner did not succeed in proving a basis for fears of persecution. Even though the individual request of the petitioner for asylum was denied, her residency permit was extended for humanitarian reasons until the end of that year based on the policy of non-deportation implemented at that time regarding citizens of the Ivory Coast. Even in an additional interview conducted with the petitioner, in the wake of an appeal she filed, it was decided to deny her request," said the Population, Immigration and Border Authority.

"At no stage of the application process was the issue of her daughter's circumcision mentioned, and even at the time of the request for a rehearing, the discussion revolved around the government of Ivory Coast, while the versions were changed from that of the original request, including [issues] of residence and political affiliation. In light of all this, it was decided not to rehear the request; and in any case the matter will be heard in court, and there the full answer will be presented," said the immigration authority.