Asylum Today: Tougher Policies, Tumbling Numbers, Intolerance in Between

Industrialized countries in recent years have complained about being swamped by asylum-seekers and have adopted increasingly stricter policies designed to stem the tide of refugees and ensure border protection. Since 2002, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been tracking a downward trend in asylum applications lodged in industrialized countries. Its latest report, Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, 2006, shows a steady decline in 50 industrialized countries (44 European and 6 non-European). The 2006 level was the lowest in many years and, in some cases, even for decades.

Germany and Denmark, for instance, recorded the lowest level since 1983, New Zealand since 1988 and the United Kingdom since 1989. In France, the number of asylum applications submitted in 2006 was the lowest since 1998. The 25 countries of the European Union received 53 per cent fewer requests in 2006 compared to 2002, while Europe as a whole registered a 54-per cent decline. While some experts agree that stricter asylum policies are behind the declining trend, others prefer to point out the growing feelings of intolerance and xenophobia fueling these policies.

Addressing the impact of stricter policies, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said UNHCR fully recognized that States were entitled to the responsible management of their borders. "But States", he added, "should also recognize that guarding borders must not prevent physical access to asylum procedures or fair refugee status determination for those entitled to it by international law." For his part, Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of the refugee and migrants' rights team at Amnesty International Secretariat, acknowledged that complex policies adopted by States not only had a "negative effect" on access to asylum, but also led to declining numbers of asylum-seekers. "These [policies] include the increasing attempts of certain States to offload their obligations on to other States through interception, extraterritorial processing and other means", he said. "States also use deterrents to stem the flow of asylum-seekers, such as the detention of failed asylum-seekers and pushing them into destitution through restricting access to assistance and employment."

Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch, noted however that non-entrée measures often made no distinction between people in need of international protection and other undocumented migrants. The UN Department of Public Information, in its 2006 list of "10 Stories the World Should Hear More About", had warned that the line was blurring between victims fleeing persecution and migrants seeking economic opportunity. Mr. Guterres said "that confusion is often bred by those who deliberately mix security problems, terrorism, migrant flows and asylum issues in order to capitalize on the fear and apprehension that result. The reality seldom supports the populist rhetoric".

Doudou Diène, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, addressed the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2006 in Geneva, alerting it to the growing impact of racism and xenophobia around the world and how they impacted asylum policies. He wrote: "Racism and xenophobia are coming out of the closet, in a sense, and gradually creeping into the policies of mainstream political actors. That fact is manifested not only in the backing away from cultural diversity manifested by many States, but also in restrictive policies regarding immigrants and asylum-seekers."

Mr. Diène, in a 2007 report to the Human Rights Council, discussed the situation in the United Kingdom. He asserted that the negative climate around asylum and refugee-related issues was closely linked to frequent changes in policies designed to increasingly deter asylum-seekers from entering the country, especially in the wake of the July 2005 bombings in London. The UNHCR distribution of asylum claims for 2006 in the United Kingdom showed that the number of new requests (27,000) lodged had fallen by 10 per cent compared to 2005, by one third (31 per cent) compared to 2004, by more than half (54 per cent) compared to 2003 and by nearly three quarters (73 per cent) compared to 2002, when the United Kingdom was the main destination for asylum-seekers, with more than 103,000 new claims.

Mr. Elsayed-Ali deplored the fact "that many Governments used the usually irrational and unjustified fear of asylum-seekers for political and electoral purposes, pushing through harsh policies that fuel xenophobia and intolerance". Mr. Frelick emphasized this fear in action in the wake of September 11 (2001), stating that the United States suspended its refugee resettlement programme and its Congress passed a flurry of counterterrorism bills, "many of which focused on restricting asylum". He noted that "refugees and asylum-seekers became the easy, visible targets that arose from this fear of terrorism, even though there was scant evidence that terrorists had or would use the refugee and asylum systems to enter the country." In 2003, the United States Department of Homeland Security introduced "Operation Liberty Shield", a nationality-based policy that spelled out detention rules for asylum-seekers of Muslim and Arab descents. It singled out more than 30 classified countries and territories. Human rights advocates vigorously denounced the now defunct Operation, which they considered blatantly racist. Also in 2003, the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration sent warning letters to 20,000 Iraqi refugees about revoking their status. According to Human Rights Watch, which has been protesting the mass revocations, the Office has currently stripped 18,000 of their refugee status. "[Saddam] Hussein's fall from power hardly means that it is now safe for Iraqi refugees to go home", Mr. Frelick argued. "The Government should recognize that persecution and generalized violence continue despite a change of government in Baghdad."

In 2005 in Switzerland, the number of asylum applications was at its lowest since 1986. Yet, the Council of States passed new asylum laws that called for asylum-seekers to be equipped with valid travel or identity documents. UNHCR swiftly denounced the provisions as the strictest in Europe, reminding the difficulty for people fleeing for their lives to obtain such documents.

The UNHCR statistical report of "10 major nationalities of asylum applicants by asylum country" from 2002 to 2006 showed the increasing impact of deterrent laws. Iraq stood at 1,305 applications to the United Kingdom in 2006 compared to 14,565 in 2002, and 2,065 applications to Germany compared to 10,367 in 2002; Turkey showed 693 applications to Switzerland in 2006 compared to 1,932 in 2002. In the United States, the 2006 list alone showed that besides Indonesia, no other Muslim country made the top 10.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees marked its fiftieth anniversary in 2001. Many critics questioned its relevance then, prompting Erica Feller, Director of the Department of International Protection at UNHCR, to qualify the Convention as "the wall behind which refugees can shelter". Today, against the backdrop of the growing migration problem, the treaty still finds many detractors. Ms. Feller reminded its critics that it was never intended to be a migration control instrument, saying that "no right-minded person could contest the ongoing relevance and significance of the Convention's basic provisions, which include that people should not be returned to persecution, that they should not be subject to discrimination, and that they should be treated in full respect for their dignity and basic needs".

Yet, there is a silver lining in the declining asylum-seekers' numbers. The Afghan experience shows that when conditions are improved at home, refugees return en masse. According to UNHCR, the number of Afghan asylum-seekers had fallen by 83 per cent, from the top group in 2001 with more than 50,000 to 13th place in 2004, with 8,800. UNHCR welcomes these success stories. Mr. Guterres said: "This is good news as it shows that there is not, contrary to the perception in many industrialized countries, a 'growing asylum problem'. I hope it helps us depoliticize the issue of refugee protection and combat intolerance."