An­tipa­thy to­ward asy­lum-seek­ers rises

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MAX FISHER AND AMANDA TAUB

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 coun- try, 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.

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.

That year, the U.S. Coast Guard be­gan in­ter­dict­ing boats of Haitians flee­ing po­lit­i­cal tur­moil at home.

Rather then let the boats reach Florida, which would oblige the United States to grant the Haitians refugee pro­tec­tions, the Amer­i­cans shipped many back to Haiti or di­verted them for pro­cess­ing at the U.S. mil­i­tary base in Guan­tá­namo Bay.

This prac­tice may have vi­o­lated the spirit of refugee pro­tec­tions, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1993, by an 8-1 vote sup­ported by the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, that this com­plied with in­ter­na­tional and do­mes­tic law.

This loop­hole – a coun­try can avoid its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­ward refugees by forcibly pre­vent­ing them from reach­ing its borders – has since be­come com­mon prac­tice among Western coun­tries.

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.


Venezue­lan San­dra Cadiz, left, em­braces her daugh­ter-in-law Daniela Gomez as she ar­rives Sept. 8 at the bus sta­tion in Lima, Peru, her fi­nal des­ti­na­tion af­ter leav­ing Venezuela. Peru and Ecuador are re­strict­ing Venezue­lan refugees.


Pak­istani refugees exit a po­lice truck as they ar­rive in Oc­to­ber at the Im­mi­gra­tion De­ten­tion Cen­ter in Bangkok, Thai­land. Thai au­thor­i­ties charged 70 Pak­istani refugees for their il­le­gal stay in the coun­try.


Refugees await pro­cess­ing in Septem­ber on the tiny Pa­cific atoll na­tion of Nauru, one of two places where Aus­tralia sends all asy­lum-seek­ers who at­tempt to reach Aus­tralia by boat.

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