Antipathy toward asylum seekers grows
President Donald Trump’s promise to stop a caravan of Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border, if necessary through military force, might seem like just another effort by the president to unilaterally dismantle international laws and accepted practices.
But there is one important difference between this and Trump’s go-italone defiance of climate change agreements, trade deals or arms control treaties. In attacking the long accepted means of protecting refugees and upholding stability in times of mass displacement, he’s got company. Lots and lots of company.
There is no shortage of countries that also skirt, and therefore undermine, global refugee rules. The European Union and Australia are two of the biggest offenders. Peru and Ecuador are restricting Venezuelan refugees, while Tanzania is working to push out Burundians.
In 2015, as Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar on overcrowded boats, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – in a move that might make even Trump blush – pushed the boats out to sea, stranding them, to prevent them from reaching safe shores
Still, countries tend to hide their violations by presenting themselves as following the letter of the law or by dressing up anti-refugee measures in humanitarian terms. But Trump is selling his harsh treatment of asylum-seekers as deliberate. And even if he is not the first to breach the rules, he is contributing to their breakdown in ways that could have global consequences.
“The more brazen you get, like Trump, and the more frequent you get, you can easily imagine a norm being completely torn down,” said Stephanie Schwartz, a University of Pennsylvania migration expert, who added that Trump was “taking an ax” to “one of the strongest norms we’ve got in international law” – the right of a refugee to seek asylum.
To consider how that would happen and what it would mean, it helps to understand the basics of asylum and how Trump fits into its erosion.
Q: How is asylum meant to work?
A: The basic principle is straightforward.
If you make it to the border of a foreign country, you have a right to request asylum. That country is obligated to hear and evaluate your claim. It cannot kick you out while it’s processing you – which can take months or years – or if you face a credible threat of persecution at home. If the country finds you meet the definition of a refugee, it is obligated to shelter you. If you don’t, only then can it expel you.
These rights came out of World War II, which created huge numbers of refugees in Europe. The war’s victors spent much of the next decade setting up what became the international order, enshrined in laws that regulate things like warfare or that establish universal rights.
Protection for refugees made the list because it was an urgent issue at the time and because it was seen as a way to uphold stability and basic rights amid any future humanitarian crises.
And after the United States and others had turned away Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, the world felt compelled to promise “never again.”
Refugees’ rights became enshrined in international law through global agreements signed in 1951 and again in 1967, when the end of colonialism brought more crises.
Not all countries signed these pacts; the United States ratified only the 1967 agreement and several Middle Eastern and Asian countries signed neither. But they are considered to be to be so widely agreed upon that they constrain everyone.
Still, what makes asylum one of the world’s strongest norms is that it is written into the domestic laws of many countries, including the United States. After all, asylum is administered by domestic governments and courts.
This means that a leader like Trump cannot simply defy his obligations by ignoring or abdicating the 1967 agreement, for that would mean breaking U.S. law.
But on the world stage there is no enforcement mechanism. There is nothing to stop a country from repealing its asylum laws or, if the leader can get away with it, ignoring them.
Q: Why has the asylum system been eroding?
A: This system held up at least moderately well until the 1990s.
In retrospect, it has become clear that Western countries complied with refugee rules, and pushed other countries to do the same, less out of altruism than because of Cold War gamesmanship.
In the first few decades after World War II, many refugees came out of the communist bloc. For Western leaders and their allies, accepting the refugees, along with those from noncommunist nations, was a way to position the West as morally and ideologically superior.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Western nations became less interested in championing refugees. They looked for ways to cut corners on their obligations.
Q: Could the asylum system break?
A: This is already happening as Western countries continue to hold out rights and protections, and push burdens onto poorer countries that are less likely or able to protect refugees.
Despite European and American hand-wringing over the arrival of Syrian refugees in their countries, for instance, the vast majority reside in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Knowing that Western powers will look the other way, those countries feel less compelled to grant full protections, preventing refugees from working or restricting where they can live.
Or they might force refugees home before it is safe for them to return.