We are in an age of mass displacement. Yet the powerful and stable nations of the world have not figured out a humane way to handle the influx of people claiming persecution while balancing domestic concerns about security and cultural change. Instead, doors are simply closing, with asylum protections rolled back seemingly everywhere.
In Italy, where the former interior minister denounced “fake refugees,” boats of Africans have been blocked from docking. The European Union pays handsomely to keep asylum seekers away, while Turkey considers sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland, which is still at war. In the US, the indefinite detention of asylum-seeking children prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to say she was appalled. Thousands of asylum seekers are sent from the U.S. to dangerous sections of Mexico and even to countries they’re not from.
The leaders who created international refugee policy never envisioned today’s refugees, with violent flash points rooted in all kinds of new phenomena—police corruption, climate change, gang warfare—that now dot the Earth, creating the conditions for the worst protracted migration crisis since World War II.
The problem is that the refugee system set forth in United Nations documents signed by most of the world’s countries does not apply to many refugees—at least not how it is currently enforced. The 1951 and 1967 agreements were drafted to specifically address European displacement from World War II while more broadly setting rules to protect people from persecution going forward: Anyone who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
To get refugee status and a pathway to permanent residency, asylum seekers generally must prove that they were personally targeted by documenting their persecution with paperwork—ostensibly from the very same authorities they are fleeing from. The irony, says David Slater, an American anthropology professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who works with asylum seekers in Japan, is that those who appear to have the most straightforward cases of persecution “are the ones who are least likely to have documentation” to prove that it happened. “You don’t stop off at the local police station, especially when the police are part of the people who are persecuting you, to try to get a police report,” he said.
More to the point, those arriving are eyed suspiciously as mere economic migrants; poverty and hunger, though defining features of persecution, are not accepted reasons for being granted asylum.
“I would say that the system is broken,” Slater says. “The amount of conflict in the world and the number of people who are fleeing are so disproportionately larger now. For us to try to use a framework that was designed under a particular set of conditions and under a particular scale is no longer feasible.”