Language as a Canary: The Role of Language in the Refugee Regime

This Note will explore the role of language in asylum claims and specifically how and why language discrimination can serve as a predominate indicator of persecution on the basis of nationality by examining language rights in relation to identity, nationality, and power dynamics. Part I will show how language is a focal point of national and ethnic identity because of its ties to political power and nation building. Accordingly, language discrimination creates a presumption of possible persecution based on nationality. Part II will look at some examples of how language is used as a tool of identification and discrimination. Part III will show how language is already being implicated with increasing frequency in refugee claims and within asylum procedures. Overall, this Note aims to persuade the refugee regime to pay more attention to language discrimination, because even if it doesn’t amount to persecution by itself, language may be the canary for escalating social tensions. In short, language may be a warning sign of increasing marginalization of specific national and/or ethnic groups. Sufficient discriminatory and violent linguistic policies may even act as prima facie evidence of socio-political marginalization, perhaps nearing persecutory levels, of specific social groups, amounting to a need for refugee protection. This Note will conclude by offering some recommendations on how to better protect those who may be seeking asylum due to (or in part due to) language discrimination. 

56 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 897