The International Community Must Honor the Right of Refugees to Seek Asylum
Jeff Crisp, a research fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, is a policy adviser to Refugees International and was formerly head of the Policy Development and Evaluation Service at United Nations Refugee Agency. He is on Twitter.
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In just 15 words, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights makes it explicit that people at risk in their homeland should be able to leave it and find refuge in another state.
But in practice, the right to seek asylum is routinely denied to those who would most benefit from it.
Refugees who travel by boat are finding it particularly difficult to complete their journeys to safety. Malaysia and Indonesia finally agreed to give temporary shelter to thousands of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya who had been stranded at sea for weeks, but Thailand continues to refuse to offer any sanctuary. An estimated 7,000 refugees are still at sea, starving in overcrowded and unsanitary vessels.
Referring to this humanitarian emergency as a “migrant crisis” gives countries license to turn a blind eye to refugees.
Many politicians and journalists have misleadingly referred to this humanitarian emergency as a “migrant crisis.” But that gives the international community license to turn a blind eye to refugees, who have the right to have their applications for asylum considered seriously.
This applies also to the large numbers of Syrians, Somalis and Eritreans coming to Europe by boat: There is a high likelihood that many are refugees, and not “migrants,” because of the intense level of armed conflict and political repression in those countries.
For the past two years, Australia has maintained a naval blockade to prevent the arrival of refugee boats. Some asylum seekers have been detained at sea for weeks, while others have been dumped into lifeboats and towed into Indonesian waters.
More alarming, the European Union is devising a military plan to identify and destroy refugee boats before they set sail from Libya, even though such action might lead to loss of life and could even boost support for radical groups like ISIS. According to one leaked document: “Any casualties as a result of E.U. action could trigger a negative response from the local population and the wider region.”
Rather than organizing such deliberate violations of the right to seek asylum, governments should invest in saving millions of lives on simple humanitarian principles.
After all, refugee exoduses may appear chaotic and even threatening in their early stages but they often have positive longer-term outcomes. Many refugees go home as soon as it is safe for them to do so, and contribute to the rebuilding of their own societies. Others settle successfully in the country that has offered them asylum or move on to begin productive new lives in other parts of the world.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted after World War II to prevent the kind of persecution and exclusion experienced by the Jews and other minority groups. Its insistence on the right to seek asylum in other countries remains just as relevant today.