Right to Run: Refugees and State Policy

By Meeks, Jim | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Right to Run: Refugees and State Policy


Meeks, Jim, Harvard International Review


This past fall, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations jumped into the legal, moral, and political debate over the right of Spanish authorities to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the grounds of his abuses of power while serving as head of state.

Memories of the terror of his former regime, marked by large numbers of executions and disappearances of political dissidents, reignited international public interest in the protection of human rights. Drastic violations of human rights, when embodied by a single individual like Pinochet, inspire the passions and fears of the entire world, reminding citizens of developed societies how tenuous their rights can be.

Yet this passion for the preservation of human rights fades away when abuses become daily occurrences, particularly if the prevention of violations infringes upon the comfort of the citizens in relatively "freer" societies. Amnesty International, when not working on high profile cases such as the extradition of Pinochet, spends a large amount of its time working on what the organization feels to be one the strongest human rights violations by developed nations: the denial of an individual's right to flee oppressive regimes. According to Article 14 of the UN Declaration of International Rights, "facing persecution, all people have the right to seek asylum and be granted asylum in other countries." While a noble concept, this right of refugees is often ignored by many national governments, and has proven to be vastly unpopular with the citizens of such nations. The pervasiveness of this dilemma has faded into the background of more lurid and high-profile cases of rights violations.

Dennis McNamara, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, singled out the United States and other developed nations for increasing restrictions on asylum-seekers, creating a refugee crisis that is "the most severe that we have faced in decades." Presently in Western Europe, many nations are feeling the strain of Article 14. The prolonged fighting in the Balkans has sent shock-waves throughout Europe: presently, there are 250,000 Kosovo refugees from the most recent outbreaks. The result has been the evolution of a US$7 billion refugee-trafficking industry. The governments of Germany, France and Great Britain especially, are paying the losses of what these black marketeers are gaining. In London, city ordinances stipulate that local boroughs are obligated to provide food and shelter for refugees while asylum applications are considered. Currently the city is supporting 8,000 refugees over the 14 month period which it takes, on average, for asylum to be granted. The unpopularity of such programs is forcing governments to significantly tighten their restrictions for asylum.

While the strain on Europe has reached a new height in the last decade, Australia, being one of two developed nations in the South Pacific, has been coping with an onslaught of refugees for the last half century. Nearly one million of Australia's 18.5 million residents were born in the nearby Asian states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and China.

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