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Seeking Asylum

Bruce Leimsidor ’63 works globally to better refugees’ lives

Bruce Leimsidor ’63 isn’t a one-issue crusader. Although the focus of his work since the 1970s has been refugees and asylum law, that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in other aspects of human rights, including, most recently, the recriminalization of homosexuality in India.

Currently, he teaches European asylum law at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy, and he also has been counselor for asylum in the Venice municipality’s program for asylum seekers.

While he’s spent decades working with refugees, his undergraduate and doctoral work would be a surprise to many. He didn’t go to law school (he said most of those working in asylum law haven’t), was a Spanish major at Swarthmore, and earned a master’s and doctorate in Spanish literature from Princeton University.

“The segue from academic life to refugee activism is not as bizarre as one would think—one developed out of the other,” says Leimsidor, whose family considered social action extremely important. 

His area of scholarly interest included the Spanish Inquisition, which may have grown out of the discrimination he faced as a Jew. When Leimsidor applied to colleges in 1959, only Swarthmore offered him a place. By 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the religion-based quotas that had limited his choices unconstitutional, so when he applied to graduate schools, he had 11 offers.

After graduating from Princeton, he taught Spanish literature at Indiana University and Occidental and Oberlin colleges, until the funding for humanistic studies dried up, and his students couldn’t get jobs. He changed directions and took a job with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an international refugee organization.

While there, he helped draft the 1980 Refugee Act; aided in the Mariel Cuban refugee boatlift; played a major role in arranging the exodus of Jews, evangelical Christians, and other dissidents from the Soviet Union; and established the U.S. refugee program for Iranian religious minorities.

In 2002, he moved for a year to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees as the senior resettlement specialist in Nairobi, Kenya, before teaching asylum law in Venice.

“The urgency is still there,” he says, explaining why he has stayed in the field, even as the work has become “more and more frustrating because the existing legal structure is being taxed to the breaking point.”

With increased mobility, more people are fleeing economic stress and inappropriately getting into the refugee system, making “it more difficult for those fleeing persecution or war to be able to get heard properly,” he adds.

A part of the problem, he says, is that the current system was set up under the Geneva Convention in the early 1950s, when large numbers of people could not easily move around the globe.

Last fall, with a grant from his university, he visited India to study human-rights issues, including the effect of the December 2013 recriminalization of homosexuality. This legal change also created issues under international asylum law because, as Leimsidor explains, persecuted gay individuals have the right to claim asylum under the Geneva Convention.

According to Human Rights First, about 600 people have been prosecuted under India’s recriminalization, which is a small number in such a large country, Leimsidor concedes. “The prosecutions are not the issue,” he adds emphatically. “The issue is that recriminalization makes the gay community totally vulnerable.”

He continues to work with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association in Geneva and with the Society for People’s Awareness, Care, and Empowerment in India on this issue.

In 1959 when Leimsidor applied to Swarthmore, he says, “A Jewish boy from New York had limited options.” That experience now informs his work to make the lives and options for refugees better around the world.