The European Union decided in April to send patrol ships to save refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean from violence in the Middle East and North Africa. As many as 1,200 boat people drowned in a few weeks as European leaders struggled to form a response that would balance competing interests from moral obligations to anti-immigrant political sentiment. A Southeast Asian refugee crisis erupted in June as tens of thousands of Rohynga, a Muslim ethnic group, fled religious persecution in Myanmar. Some died at sea. Unaccompanied children made international headlines in 2014, as record numbers streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border. Over 85 percent of the juveniles who appeared in U.S. immigration courts from 2012 to 2014 were from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador; 14,114 were allowed to stay while 21,463 were ordered removed or left voluntarily. Globally, the largest number of asylum seekers come from war-torn Syria. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, including Christians fleeing forced conversion to Islam, have found refuge in France and the U.S. The number of asylum claims made by gay, bisexual and transgender people has increased in recent years. One person’s refugee can be another’s wanted man. Think of Edward Snowden, the former CIA system administrator who was granted asylum by Russia after revealing details of classified U.S. government surveillance programs, and Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, who was given asylum in 2012 by the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
The UN says the concept of asylum is one of the “earliest hallmarks of civilization,” citing references to it in 3,500-year-old texts. The word comes from the ancient Greek term for freedom from seizure. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol are the modern legal framework for asylum, defining refugees as people who can show they’ll be persecuted at home based on race, religion, nationality, political conviction or social group. Claims have been rising; 44 industrialized nations surveyed in 2014 registered 866,000 asylum applications, 45 percent more than the year before and the second-highest level since the early 1980s. In 2013, 286,500 asylum applications were accepted and 376,200 rejected. Sweden recognized the most at 26,800. Asylum has been used as a political tool, as when Americans welcomed Cubans and Vietnamese seeking refuge from Communism. Individuals have used it to avoid or delay criminal prosecution. Examples include Snowden, Assange and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president indicted for war crimes, who was given temporary refuge by Nigeria.
More flight from violence means more polarized debate over asylum. Asylum seekers are encountering more hostility and more migrants’ lives are in limbo. Advocates say the universal obligation to protect the vulnerable should be extended to people fleeing danger, not just those exposed to official persecution. They cite the Central American children running from gangs and some of the world’s highest murder rates. Others say asylum policy has grown too lax and threatens to supplant the regular immigration process. Critics of the U.S. say its asylum judgments are so arbitrary they amount to “refugee roulette.” Some European countries have cut welfare to diminish the chance that assistance attracts asylum seekers. A cottage industry of sorts has grown to provide would-be seekers with compelling personal narratives that are exaggerated or false.
The Reference Shelf
- The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees helps evaluate asylum claims and publishes an annual report on asylum trends and statistics on Syria and the surrounding region.
- The International Journal of Refugee Law offers free abstracts and paid access to full articles.
- A U.S. Congressional Research Service report discusses asylum and immigration policy.
- Bloomberg Business published a report on the Mediterranean refugee crisis in April 2015.
- An overview of asylum and the rights of refugees from the International Justice Resource Center.