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Right to asylum: Bye-bye

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While the right to seek asylum exists in principle, it may soon be gone in practice, or at least significantly diminished in scope and intent. 

Increasingly countries worldwide, including America, are becoming less accepting of unauthorized migrants and are adopting de facto policies aimed at limiting asylum claims, the large majority of which are not granted. 

Established in 1948 as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 declares, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, there is an inherent tension between the right of people to seek and to enjoy asylum in another country and the rights of sovereign nations to regulate the arrival and admission of foreign nationals. 

Asylum is granted to persons who can demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group. 

Poverty, the lack of employment, housing, education and health care, poor governance, climate change, domestic violence and crime are generally not considered legitimate grounds for granting asylum. Consequently, such claims are typically not granted. 

That asylum practice was largely observed in America during the recent past. However, the Biden administration revised the previous administration’s asylum policy, thereby permitting people to seek asylum over credible fears of domestic abuse and gang violence. 

When the right to asylum was established nearly 75 years ago, the world population was about 2.5 billion. Today world population has tripled, approaching 8 billion and likely reaching 9 billion by 2037.  

An estimated 15 percent of the world’s adults, or more than 800 million people, say they would like to migrate to another country, with America being the most desired destination. Also, the numbers seeking asylum are escalating rapidly, currently more than 4 million or four times the level in 2000. 

In response to mounting numbers of persons claiming asylum, the diverse and uncertain compositions of those populations and national security concerns, many countries are reinforcing their efforts to deter unauthorized migrants from crossing their borders and claiming asylum.  

Among the efforts to limit asylum claims are building walls, barbed-wire fences and barriers, instituting travel bans, pushing back migrants, forcing back boats, limiting quotas and admissions, blocking admissions and keeping those seeking asylum in neighboring countries

Persons arriving at borders have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned away or separated from their children. Those claiming asylum have typically remained in the country while their cases are adjudicated, in hopes they will be permitted to remain. 

In line with that recognized right, the Biden administration took steps early on to loosen the reins on illegal migration and those claiming asylum. Those steps led to the anticipated surge of people heading north that has overwhelmed border authorities.  

Apprehensions of migrants at America’s southern border reached a two-decade high in July. Also, in September authorities faced more than 12,000 Haitian migrants at the border seeking to settle in the U.S. 

Recently the Supreme Court reinstated the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), commonly known as Remain in Mexico policy. Rather than being permitted to enter and remain in America, the protocols require people to remain in Mexico while their claims for asylum are being decided. 

Countries in virtually every region have adopted policies similar to those protocols. Some members of the European Union, for example, have stated that there is really no place in Europe for those seeking asylum from Afghanistan and are providing funds for camps in neighboring countries or urging Afghans to remain home. Also, Australia has a strict stance on asylum seekers and illegal migration with an offshore detention policy.

Similarly, the wealthy countries of the Middle East are steering clear from accepting asylum seekers, including those from Afghanistan. Although they acknowledge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many states in the Middle East have not signed international refugee instruments.

Resolving asylum claims not only involves lengthy time periods and financial and human resources but in most instances, claims are denied. In America, for example, the proportion of asylum decisions denied in 2019 was 69 percent, a record high for the 21st century. Similarly in many European countries, including Hungary, Poland, Italy, France and Sweden, the percentages of first instance asylum applications rejected in 2019 exceeded 70 percent

However, governments often find it difficult to repatriate persons whose claims are denied or the many who miss court appointments. Many asylees become integrated into communities while waiting for a settlement of their claim and develop supportive networks, especially in sanctuary cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the right to asylum. Beginning in the first several months of 2020, the pandemic worsened trends limiting the ability of asylum seekers to cross-borders. Most countries suspended asylum hearings, claims and resettlement programs; some also banned the entry of asylum seekers.

More recently with the return of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, many countries are concerned about another large wave of asylum seekers similar to that in 2015 from Syria and Iraq. Governments are worried that another large influx of asylum seekers will strengthen far-right and populist movements and inspire domestic violence directed at immigrants and certain faith communities. The United Nations refugee agency has projected that 500,000 Afghans may attempt to leave the country and seek asylum by the end of 2021.  

Facing political backlash, rising nationalist sentiments, anti-immigrant attitudes and violence,  mounting levels of illegal migration and increasing emphasis on the sovereign rights of countries to regulate the admission of foreign nationals, those genuinely seeking asylum are facing considerable obstacles.

The right to asylum remains a fundamental migration principle in international and national legal instruments. In practice, however, in an increasingly populous, diverse and unstable world, the right to asylum appears to be coming to an end as governments are closing doors, reinforcing borders, deterring entry and rejecting asylum claims. 

Joseph Chamie is an international consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

Tags anti-immigration Asylum asylum laws Immigration immigration laws migration Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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