MontrealCanada – Last May, the United Nations unveiled a “sobering” milestone it said “never should have been achieved”: For the first time in recorded history, more than 100 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence and persecution .
As the world grapples with the consequences of this displacement, experts warn that an equally alarming trend is also accelerating: the “erosion” of the right to seek asylum in other countries.
“The doors are closing and the language is becoming coarser. Hearts harden, walls are built,” Allan Rock, a member of the World Refugee & Migration Council and former Canadian ambassador to the UN, told Al Jazeera.
“Everywhere you look there is a weakening and often a disappearance of the right to seek asylum.”
Global asylum system
That right is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which came about in the aftermath of World War II when millions of European refugees were displaced and sought protection.
The convention – and a later amendment known as the 1967 Protocol – describes who qualifies as refugees under international law and what their rights are. This includes an important principle known as non-refoulement, which discourages countries from returning people to areas where they fear harm.
“Asylum is a protection,” explains Jaya Rajmi-Nogales, a law professor at Temple University in the United States. “It’s really about our moral obligation to other people who need protection because they’re facing harm.”
One hundred and forty-nine countries have ratified the Refugee Convention or the Protocol, or both, and many have also enshrined the right to seek asylum in their own national legislation.
But access to asylum has “regressed significantly” since at least the 1990s “and so rapidly lately,” said Alison Mountz, a geography professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University and its research chair on global migration.
That’s largely because countries that signed the 1951 treaty “creatively use geography to prevent people from entering” their territory to file asylum claims, Mountz told Al Jazeera — a phenomenon she called “border externalization.”
“They basically go into detail about the journeys people make on their way to apply for asylum, stopping them along the way before they reach the sovereign territory where they have the right to apply for asylum,” said Mountz.
Unlike refugee resettlement — an often timely process in which refugees are vetted by the UN before being matched with countries that take them in — an application for asylum cannot be made until a refugee is on the territory of another country.
“Asylum is different because it brings more chaos and uncertainty as people move,” Mountz said. “That plays on this fear about who’s coming, and it exposes the desire of government and policy to select people, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.”
“Border outsourcing” today takes many forms, from pushing back refugees seeking to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, to bilateral agreements that require countries to fulfill their obligations to assess asylum applications or effectively seal their shared borders.
Recently, the British government came under fire for reaching a “memorandum of understanding” with Rwanda to allow asylum seekers to be sent to the African country to make their claims heard there – more than 7,000 km (4,350 miles) beyond.
European countries have also spent tens of millions of dollars training the Libyan coastguard in an effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers using Libya as a starting point to try to reach Europe by sea. Tens of thousands have died making such crossings in recent years.
In North America, Canada last month extended an agreement with the US that effectively allows it to close the door to most asylum seekers who cross the land border between the US and Canada and send them back to the United States, even if they have reached Canadian territory.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has also proposed a policy that rights groups have dubbed an “asylum ban”; the plan would deny asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border access to protection in the US if they did not first seek asylum in Mexico or another country they crossed earlier in their journey.
“The policy of the [US-Mexico] The border is so restrictive that we are seeing a record number of people flocking because they cannot cross the border,” said Javier Hidalgo, director of pre-removal services at RAICES, a Texas-based organization that supports asylum seekers and migrants.
“We as a country are not diverting resources into creating a system to meet the need for the processing that needs to happen,” he told Al Jazeera. “[We’re] redirect resources to be preemptive.
The deadly effects of U.S. immigration policies are often “erased from the public eye,” said Hidalgo, who pointed to recent figures showing that more than 850 people died in fiscal year 2022 trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The recent deaths of dozens of mostly Guatemalan migrants in a fire at a detention center in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has also highlighted the dangers asylum seekers face when forced to wait in Mexico in the hopes of get their claims. heard in the US.
“It’s an increasing level of desperation,” Hidalgo said. “There is a huge hunt for this population waiting to cross. We have created a market for kidnapping by the cartels and corruption by the officials on the other side of the border.
“And then we blame the victims — and it’s an ugly cycle there.”
Dehumanizing rhetoric around migration also contributes to that “ugly cycle,” the experts said, as governments that impose restrictions on the right to asylum also use language that tries to obscure their own obligations under international law.
In some cases, this has been overt, such as when former US President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers use the term “illegals” to refer to people entering the country seeking protection, or to warn of an “invasion.”
It can also be more subtle, such as the phrase “legal migration”, meaning seeking asylum by crossing a border illegally is “illegal”.
“Those who show up at our border and ask for asylum … don’t jump in line, they don’t play games with the system and they don’t ask for charity,” said Rock of the World Refugee & Migration Council. “They are exercising a right – a right that has been morally and legally recognized for millennia.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention also addresses the falsehood that crossing a border to seek asylum is “illegal”, stating that refugees should not be penalized for “illegal entry” because “applying for asylum may result in refugees violating immigration rules”.
According to Mountz of Wilfrid Laurier University, rhetoric around migration “decays into broader narratives and tropes about immigration and the fear of people crossing the border without permission.”
“But it’s important to note that there really isn’t a visa you can get to apply for asylum,” she said. “So unfortunately people seeking asylum are often associated with criminal activity because they are forced to make an illegal crossing, essentially to get somewhere to make a claim.”
‘Life and death’
But as wealthy countries build more walls and find new and innovative ways to make asylum out of reach, Rajmi-Nogales said another path is possible: one where countries spend the resources necessary to displace people.
“Europe’s response, especially to the Ukrainians, has shown that these destination countries are rich countries with a lot of resources and that it could even work,” she said, referring to how Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invasion of Russia could seek safety in neighboring countries. as well as in the US, Canada and beyond.
“Instead of spending all this money building a wall on the border, we could spend money on integration and education and empowering people to come and live productive lives.”
That was echoed by Rock, who said the world is at a critical juncture.
“What is more fundamental as part of our common humanity than our obligation to respect other people’s right to live? We must not lose sight of that fundamental principle in all this,” he said.
“Now that principle has been eroded, ignored, undervalued – and needs to be revived. And people need to understand that for many asylum seekers it is a matter of life or death.”