Lost in migration: Asylum seekers face challenges amid efforts to stem flows of illegal migrants
Against the backdrop of escalating migratory flows and growing concerns over security, the institution of asylum finds itself in need of protection as the line gets blurred between victims who flee persecution and migrants who seek economic opportunity.
In recent years, with the number of migrants in a rapidly globalizing world reaching an estimated 200 million, the important distinctions between migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have been blurred. With it, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has come a growing degree of “asylum fatigue” in various parts of the world, a process that has threatened and in many cases undermined the protection that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention was intended to provide to refugees and asylum seekers. While illegal migration and security are problems that no state can afford to ignore, the UN refugee agency stresses that control policies should distinguish between illegal migrants seeking better economic opportunities and those people who are in need of international refugee protection.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of industrialized countries — as well as some developing nations — are making no such distinctions, says UNHCR. Ever more often, asylum seekers are portrayed not as refugees fleeing persecution and entitled to sanctuary, but as “illegals”, potential terrorists and criminals. A frequently overlooked fact, however, is that asylum seekers and refugees comprise only a very small proportion of the tens of millions of people on the move today, yet they are being inextricably linked with the question of international migration. In a context where governments and electorates are unable to draw a clear distinction between the victims of persecution and the perpetrators of terrorist violence, argues UNHCR, there is an evident need to safeguard the principle of asylum.
- A constant feature of human history, the notion of asylum had been progressively incorporated into international law, culminating in the establishment of the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. By the second half of 2005, no fewer than 146 of the 191 UN Member States had acceded to these international instruments, which are promoted and supervised by UNHCR.
- The codified principles of asylum set out the rights and obligations pertaining to people who have been obliged to leave their own country and are in need of international protection because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ on account of their ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’
- Asylum applications in industrialized countries fell sharply in 2005 for the fourth year in a row. The number of asylum applications submitted in 2005 totaled 336,000, or 15 per cent fewer than in the previous years.
- The largest drop in the number of asylum seekers in the last five years was recorded outside Europe. Canada and the United States received 54 per cent fewer asylum requests in 2005 than in 2001, while asylum applications in Australia and New Zealand plummeted by 75 per cent in the same period.
- The largest group of asylum seekers in 2005 was from Serbia and Montenegro, which includes asylum seekers from Kosovo.
- Of the ten leading asylum-seeker nationalities, Iraqis and Haitians rose the sharpest in 2005, both by 27 per cent, while the number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Turkey continued to drop steadily.