Fears, Strains Threatening Long-Held Right to Asylum

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 1994 | Go to article overview

Fears, Strains Threatening Long-Held Right to Asylum


Political asylum has moved to center stage with the release last week of new Immigration and Naturalization Service proposals.

Simultaneously, the refugee issue is pointing us all in a new direction, to what one commentator has called "transnational activism," the linking of those who believe in battling for a global civil society.

The fact is that the right to asylum is turning into a privilege, and privileges are always doled out more sparingly than rights.

Liberal, democratic Western governments, which made asylum a keystone of post-World War II refugee policy -- they also, de facto, made the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees asylum's bodyguard -- have reversed themselves.

Western nations, the United States included, have cause to worry about the stresses and strains that refugees, immigration and asylum seekers are creating. But as one speaker at a recent conference (see page 6) stated, "security is now the optic" through which asylum seekers are viewed.

Good intent on the part of countries like the United States is complicated because not everyone completing the asylum-seeking paperwork is doing so from a "well-founded fear of persecution" if sent home.

Filing U.S. paperwork has meant an almost automatic authorization to seek work. Given the system's enormous backlog, the work authorization has been like a temporary green card and has been used by people to extend their stay after their visas have expired. Governments also argue that people granted temporary status never go home.

So, while there are legitimate asylum seekers, the system is open to abuse.

In Europe, even though 90 percent of all asylum cases are rejected, according to Georgetown University's Charles Keely, no one quarrels with the basic fairness of that review system. If 90 percent of all U.S. current backlog cases were rejected, this year America would send home 270,000 people plus at least a further 130,000 from the 1994 applicants.

Enforcement has become another asylum-issues code word -- U.S. asylum reform funds are in the Crimes Trust Fund -- because enforcement means creating an efficient system to remove the people whose asylum claims are rejected.

Further, every Western move can markedly exacerbate the refugee crisis in other countries especially Africa. When, in the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher moved to totally bar asylum seekers, she complained that Britain already had 1,500. …

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