An­tipa­thy to­ward asy­lum seek­ers grows

The Island Packet (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 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.

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