How Things Work: Political Asylum

What if someone barged into your apartment or dorm room in the middle of the night, threatening you, your family, and your livelihood? What if civil war in Pennsylvania forced you to move to Canada? What if the government was critical of your political views, suggesting not-too-subtly that you get out of Dodge? Although these situations sound far-fetched in Pittsburgh, millions around the world have left their homes and countries because they fear for their lives in similar situations. These people are refugees.
World leaders were forced to confront refugee issues in the aftermath of World War II, when millions of Europeans wandered aimlessly through a battered continent. Although several international agencies existed to provide support for refugees after the war, no official definition or legal framework existed for nations to deal with refugees for an entire decade, until 1951.
It was then that the committee known as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put before the world the first set of international guidelines for dealing with refugees. This document, known as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, defines who is legally a refugee and what their rights are.
According to the Convention, a refugee is someone who has a ?well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,? and has left his or her home country. The definition explicitly excludes convicts and war criminals, and it should also be noted that someone who voluntarily leaves their country without fear of persecution ? for example, for economic reasons ? isn?t a refugee, but a migrant.
Actually becoming a refugee is known as seeking political asylum. It begins as soon as would-be refugees set foot on another nation?s soil, by whatever means, legally or illegally. If the country they enter determines that they are truly refugees, then certain rights and protections are given to them until they can return home or seek citizenship elsewhere.
Many of these rights are equal to those given to foreign nationals, and some are even equal to citizens? rights. Among others, refugees are guaranteed the right to employment, elementary education, protection from taxes targeted specifically for refugees, use of the judicial system, and even intellectual property protection.
One of the most important rights of the Convention is the prohibition of refoulement. Refoulement is the practice of sending refugees back to their country of origin when a threat of persecution still exists. Although the Convention forbids refoulement, it has been interpreted to varying degrees, some against the spirit of refugee protection.
The U.S., for example, was challenged in the 1993 Supreme Court case Sale v. Haitian Centers Council. During this time, it was the Coast Guard?s practice to turn back refugees in boats from Haiti before they reached U.S. waters. The government won the case, but it must now screen for potential refugees before returning them.
Since the Convention?s passage in 1951, a total of 140 nations have become participants. Though this high level of involvement is promising, every member nation isn?t able to provide the same level of protection for asylum-seekers as outlined in the Convention. To deal with this, many nations have written declarations modifying the guideline to better suit their country.
However, this was only the beginning of an emerging division over refugee law. Debate continues today and is more heated than ever. Many nations have cried foul of the increasingly large numbers of asylum seekers attempting to enter their countries. Human trafficking has lead to huge increases in refugee numbers ? so high that the waiting list for asylum-seekers wanting permanent resident status in the U.S. is 14 years!
The United Nations has also taken on new challenges to the definition of a refugee. Internally displaced refugees who don?t cross international borders, refugees who have no citizenship, countries refusing large numbers of refugees, and previously unconsidered types of persecution like gender and non-government persecution have all raised new challenges for today?s refugee law.
With close to 10 million refugees and 25 million IDPs falling under the protection of the UNHCR, a large task remains. Still, maybe one day we can all just go home.