Around the world, rich and poor countries alike are pulling up their drawbridges, slashing the number of refugees they are willing to accept, and denying asylum to those who might have been admitted in the past.
By Nanjala Nyabola | Foreign Affairs | Oct 10, 2019
Derived from the ancient Greek asulos, which roughly translates to ‘inviolable,’ the word ‘asylum’ first entered the English lexicon in the late Middle Ages, when it was understood to mean ‘an inviolable shelter or protection from pursuit or arrest.’ By definition, an asylum seeker was a person who sought a form of protection that could never be violated, broken, or infringed upon.
A small tent city is taking shape in Tapachula, on the Mexican-Guatemalan border, and its inhabitants are living proof of the systematic erosion of one of the foundational principles of the post–World War II international order. The residents are primarily refugees and migrants from African countries who fled political persecution, social upheaval, and economic uncertainty, taking one of the longest and most perilous migration routes in the world in the hope of reaching the United States.
Until recently, most would have been granted a 21-day grace period to either normalize their residency status in Mexico or continue on to the U.S. border. But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that the administration of President Donald Trump can deny asylum to anyone who has crossed a third country en route to the U.S. border, Mexico has started denying Africans free passage through its territory. And so the migrants arriving in Tapachula have nowhere to go. They are trapped between hard-line U.S. asylum policies, Mexico’s acquiescence to those policies, and a growing global backlash against anyone seeking asylum.
The United States is far from the only country to slam its gates on those fleeing crumbling social, political, and economic systems. Around the world, rich and poor countries alike are pulling up their drawbridges, slashing the number of refugees they are willing to accept, and denying asylum to those who might have been admitted in the past. Europe, for instance, sank to a new nadir in the summer of 2019 by criminalizing rescue in the Mediterranean, allowing preventable deaths at sea, and forcibly returning vulnerable people to torture and indefinite detention in Libya.
In Africa, Asia, and South America, the mood is much the same. Kenya is building a wall along its border with Somalia and sending thousands of Somali refugees back into a war zone. Bangladesh plans to repatriate thousands of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar with the help of the UN Refugee Agency, despite the fact that other UN agencies warn that returnees still face the threat of genocide. And across South America and the Caribbean, Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic collapse have been met with sudden policy changes designed to make them ineligible for asylum, while Australia’s extraterritorial detention system, based on the Pacific island of Nauru, remains a symbol of the violent lengths to which that country is willing to go to prevent people from seeking safety within its borders.
Demand for asylum has never been higher, with more than 25.9 million people around the world having fled their countries as a result of war and instability. Yet the list of countries willing to take them in is shrinking by the day, and the international system that created and is bound to protect the right to asylum is increasingly complicit in its demise. If there were a theme song to 2019, it would be a dirge for the end of asylum.