By | Updated May 23, 2017 3:22 PM UTC

Asylum just might be the world’s most controversial universal idea. The United Nations declares it an inalienable human right. Most countries offer it. The principle of asylum is that nations should safeguard people who face persecution or danger and whose own countries can’t or won’t protect them. The discord starts when nations try to figure out who actually gets sanctuary. In the wake of violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, the number of people seeking asylum has risen to close to a record level.  The question is whether support for the concept can survive today’s flood of refugees and the backlash of antipathy toward outsiders in some host countries.

The Situation

Soon after taking office at the start of the year, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order reducing the number of refugees that can be admitted to the country in the fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. The order also temporarily froze the entry of refugees and anyone from a handful of majority-Muslim countries. Trump revised the second set of restrictions after they were blocked in court, but U.S. judges have still put them on hold while legal challenges are adjudicated. Trump was elected after proposing at least a temporary “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.” In Europe, too, nationalist politicians have gained popularity by questioning the wisdom of accepting refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in September, suffered a drop in support after her 2015 decision to admit close to a million asylum seekers. Attacks in Europe and the U.S. by killers linked to or inspired by Islamic State have engendered fear that future terrorists lurk among those requesting sanctuary. The number of refugees has steadily increased since 2012, to 16.5 million by mid-2016. Syrians form the largest group. They are fleeing civil war, like the Afghans, Somalis and Sudanese who make up the next-biggest groups. Victims of persecution include Christians escaping forced conversion to Islam in Arab countries and the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar fleeing the abuse of their Buddhist compatriots. Asylum claims by gay, bisexual and transgender people have increased in recent years. 

Link to UN report 

The Background

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says the concept of asylum is one of the “earliest hallmarks of civilization,” citing references to it in 3,500-year-old texts. The word comes from the ancient Greek term for freedom from seizure. A 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol are the modern legal framework for asylum, defining refugees as people who can show they’ll be persecuted at home based on race, religion, nationality, political conviction or social group. Agreements in Europe, Africa and South America expanded the definition to include those fleeing generalized violence. In 2015, some 672,200 asylum applications were accepted and 491,900 rejected globally. Asylum has been used as a political tool, as when Americans welcomed Cubans and Vietnamese seeking refuge from communism. One person’s refugee can be another’s wanted man. Think of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who was granted asylum by Russia after revealing details of classified U.S. government surveillance programs, and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who was given asylum in 2012 in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after Sweden sought his extradition on rape allegations. Sweden dropped the probe in May.

Link to UN report

The Argument

Critics of asylum policies in the U.S. and Europe worry that taking in refugees can lead not only to terrorism, but to higher crime and unemployment rates. Trump argues that the U.S. has insufficient procedures for screening out potential troublemakers. Defenders of the vetting process say it is rigorous, even if no system is foolproof. Asylum advocates stress the universal obligation to protect the vulnerable and note that many of the people that nationalists like Trump would keep out are fleeing the terrorism of Islamic State. Critics of U.S. asylum judgments say they are so arbitrary they amount to “refugee roulette.” A cottage industry of sorts has developed to provide haven seekers with compelling personal narratives that are exaggerated or false. The debate over asylum in the U.S. and Europe can overshadow the fact that the burden of hosting the world’s refugees falls more on poorer countries closer to major conflicts, such as Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.

The Reference Shelf

First published Aug. 28, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Esmé E Deprez in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at