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Many ancient peoples - the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Hebrews among them - recognised a religious right to asylum and offered protection in the place of worship to those accused of criminal acts. Later adopted by the established Christian Church during the Council of Orleans in 511, the Christian right of asylum came to be offered to anyone who sought sanctuary in a church, in its dependencies or in the house of a bishop. This included fugitive slaves, who would be returned to their owner only after he had sworn on the Bible that he would not be cruel to them.

Right of political asylum

The right of political asylum is an equally ancient judicial notion, under which a person persecuted for his political or religious beliefs may seek protection from another sovereign authority or a foreign country. History contains many examples of troublesome thinkers offered sanctuary in foreign lands: Hobbes in France, Descartes in the Netherlands, and Voltaire and later Marx in Britain. During the revolution of 1789, over 150 000 French people fled France and sought asylum not only in neighbouring states but as far afield as the US.

In 1951, mindful of the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who had asked for and been denied asylum as they tried to escape the Nazi holocaust, and conscious of the thousands of others turned into refugees by the destruction and altered borders of World War 2, the UN drafted a Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1967 they followed with a Protocol for creating guidelines for national legislation. Under these and other agreements a refugee eligible for asylum is deemed to be one who has been forced to flee his country owing to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Refusing asylum and returning a victim of persecution to his own country is considered a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

Ambiguities around asylum

Clear and precise on paper, the issue of asylum remains mired in arbitrariness, paradoxes and uncertainty. The very term asylum seeker is often confused with migrant worker (a person who leaves his country voluntarily, in search of work, to join family or to study) or illegal immigrant (one residing in a foreign country without permission). Faced by ever growing numbers of people fleeing conflict and persecution, states have responded with ever harsher and more excluding legislation. Driven by the democratic will of their people, many of whom are frequently hostile to those seeking asylum, governments are struggling to find policies which protect their borders, yet which are at the same time humane and protect the rights of those who seek asylum.

The US is today the country which accepts more asylum seekers than any other nation - over two million since 1980.

Additional resources


Author: Caroline Moorehead