Niklaus Steiner, « Arguing about asylum:the complexity of refugee debates in Europe »
Few issues in Europe today are as controversial as the granting of asylum. While the general idea that politically persecuted people ought to receive asylum is widely accepted, the source of the controversy lies in the details. What precisely constitutes “political persecution?” How can an asylum application be judged fairly? To what extent should domestic constraints influence asylum decisions? These are all difficult questions that bring to light the complex mix of political, cultural, moral, legal, economic, and ideological motives that shape asylum policies in Europe.
Asylum in Europe has not always been this way. Until the late 1970s, the issue caused little controversy because few people applied for asylum. Those who did were usually well-educated Eastern Europeans who were economically and ideologically useful. Asylum in Europe changed dramatically from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s as the world’s refugee population soared from two million to 15 million.1 Better communication and transportation links helped people from all over the world reach Europe where they have been applying for asylum in unprecedented numbers. Within a decade, annual asylum applicants in Europe increased ten-fold, from 60,000 to 600,000, with the majority of these applicants coming from countries as diverse as the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran, Lebanon, Zaire, Pakistan, and India. This rise in the number of asylum-seekers, their diverse countries of origin, and the decline of communism have all led to making asylum such a highly controversial issue in Europe today. […]
It must be clear that this paper deals with refugees not immigrants, and this distinction is crucial to make. While both may be considered a subset of international migration, an immigrant is an individual who voluntarily migrates from one country to another, usually for economic betterment. The difficulty of defining a refugee has long been a focus of refugee scholars and needs not detain us here. Instead, it is important to understand how the three states under consideration define a refugee. In assessing whether an individual is a refugee and therefore deserves asylum, Switzerland, Germany, and Britain all use the criteria laid down by Article 1 of the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention. Accordingly, all three states consider refugees to be individuals who face persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, or their membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The asylum controversy in Europe revolves around the fact that economic hardship is not a criterion for being recognized as a refugee. The crux of the matter is that European states claim that the vast majority of those seeking asylum today are in fact not persecuted refugees but are opportunistic immigrants who abuse the asylum process with illegitimate claims. This charge is vehemently denied by those who believe Europe is becoming a fortress and turning its back on people who deserve protection.
While I separate national interests, international norms, and morality for analytical purposes, I am fully aware that in practice these motives are significantly entangled because we tend to design our actions so that our self-interests and our non-self-interests coincide. Such an entanglement of motives is quite common in asylum where accepting refugees can grant legitimacy, strengthen democracy, express humanitarian sentiments, mollify religious concerns, grow the economy, enhance security, bolster international law, and satisfy public demands. Explaining away this complexity as mere reflections of national interests is dubious at best.
When referring to international norms, the asylum literature cites numerous explicit international and regional agreements that prescribe the establishment of an asylum process, the definition of a refugee, the principle of non-refoulement, and the link between asylum and human rights. For Germany, Switzerland and Britain, the most important international refugee norms are the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the European Human Rights Convention. As of 1995, 128 states were party to the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol, including Britain, Germany and Switzerland.
I use the term morality to mean the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and the willingness to act upon what is right. In other words, a moral argument has a reflective and an active component. In asylum debates, moral arguments not only claim to know what is right, but they also claim to actively promote it. In pointing out moral obligations to grant asylum, the asylum literature most often stresses either religious or philosophical foundations, specifically Judeo-Christian ideals or the central tenets of Liberalism. […]
Regarding the national interests […], parliamentarians rarely defended their positions on the grounds of foreign policy interests. […] Even more remarkable was the near absence of arguments over economic interests. Not a single supporter of tighter asylum in any of these debates argued that asylum should be tightened because of threats to labor markets or to the economy as a whole. […] Meanwhile, opponents of tighter asylum were completely silent about the positive economic impact of asylum-seekers and refugees. Furthermore, neither side addressed to any significant extent the effect asylum-seekers and refugees had on the host society’s cultural interests. Instead, when relying on national interests, parliamentarians on both sides appealed mainly to the political interests of internal harmony and effective governance.
Why is asylum « such a highly controversial issue in Europe today » ?
What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant ?
To what extent is asylum a complex case where national interests, international norms and morality are at stake ?