With the Stroke of a Pen? Why Rescinding the Africa Ban Must Be a Beginning
By Adotei Akwei, Deputy Director, Amnesty International USA
On the first day of his tenure, President Biden signed an executive order rescinding the Muslim and African bans which had excluded citizens from 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries from traveling to the United States. The Trump travel bans were among the most blatant and odious examples of the bigotry and racism that flourished over the last four years, but they were just part of a larger infrastructure and machine that openly and enthusiastically repudiated international human rights obligations, national laws and historic precedent. That machine consisted of personnel — individuals — who just followed orders, whether it was denying visas, physically preventing people at the southern border from attempting to apply for asylum or complete a years-long vetting process to become refugees. This system also rounded up, detained and deported people, going as far as separating children from their parents, all in an effort to expel certain types of people from the United States — people of color.
As welcome and important as is the executive order issued on Day One of the Biden administration, hard questions and some kind of reckoning for the last four years will still need to happen. As absurd and difficult as it is to imagine, a system already engaged in violating the rights of tens of thousands of people of color still managed to treat persons of African descent even worse.
The Trump Africa travel bans targeted Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Libya, and Somalia with no apparent logic. Eritrea suffers egregious, systemic repression of the 28-year rule of President Isais Afwerki. Human rights and the rule of law are under open attack by the government of President John Magafuli of Tanzania, who in the lead-up to elections in October 2020, arrested opposition candidates, stripped their rights to freedom of assembly, association, and movement and enacted laws tightening his control over what local and foreign media could publish. Sudan, Somalia, and Libya were even more challenged: Libya and Somalia continue to be wracked by internal conflict and Sudan’s emergence from over 30 years of autocratic rule by Omar al-Bashir, while promising, is fragile.
The travel bans were complemented by aggressive action to round up, detain and deport African migrants and asylum seekers already in the United States. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed a “removal flight” on January 14, (year), that carried individuals from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. In 2020, ICE conducted several removal flights, including one that deported Cameroonians, returning people to a nation where the security forces of President Paul Biya are linked to systematic, egregious human rights violations in counter-insurgency efforts against armed groups and civilians in the Anglophone regions and against the armed group Boko Haram in the Far North. ICE also deported Black Mauritanians who face possible enslavement due to the government’s failure to enforce the abolition of the practice.
The new Biden executive orders will end such discrimination aimed at all persons from Africa as well from the specific countries. The equally critical 100-day moratorium on deportations will temporarily help protect people from being sent back into danger. But reports of torture and coercion by ICE to secure signatures to deport African asylum seekers mean that the people currently in the system, as well as those who may come in the future, will survive harrowing ordeals only to face injustice as a result of institutionalized racism and impunity.
The executive orders rescinding the travel bans represent an important step towards repairing relations with the continent of Africa. However, the new administration needs to rethink its relationships with African governments beyond rhetoric, financial assistance, and democracy promotion. In the past 10 years, we have seen a massive backsliding of steps toward good governance in countries previously viewed as making progress. Some of these government officials responsible for the backsliding need to be held accountable. But this cannot happen unless accountability happens in the US as well.
That must not be the best that the United States can do.