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International refugee movements - out of control

By Alexander Casella - posted Tuesday, 30 October 2001

The word "Asylum" comes from the Greek, and describes a place of refuge where a man could escape from the reach of the power of the state. Traditionally, the place of asylum was the temple. However, if the person who had sought refuge in the holy place had committed a blatant crime, he would be denied food and water to compel him to leave the place of worship, which then enabled the temporal power to lay hand on him.

Thus, since its very origin, the corollary of asylum was its management. Three thousand years later, the problem is unchanged: Asylum without management leads or abuse, which in turn leads to the erosion of the principal. To preserve the principal requires that it be managed. The problem is how.

Three questions have to be addressed in managing asylum: who is a refugee; where should they seek asylum; and for how long?


A Refugee is defined by persecution for political or religious reasons, or for belonging to a specific social group. Someone seeking asylum is by definition an asylum-seeker. If a person’s claim conforms to the definition of a refugee, they are recognised as such. If it does not conform, they are not. There is therefore no such thing as a ‘bogus refugee’. One either is a refugee or not.

Global movement

Traditionally, refugees sought asylum within their own cultural or geographic environment with the ultimate aim of returning home when the danger for them was over.

The first major exception to this occurred during the Vietnamese refugee exodus. While some 300,000 Cambodian refugees waited for up to fourteen years in camps in Thailand for the situation in their home country to change to permit their safe repatriation, until 1989 all Vietnamese boat people were automatically resettled in developed countries.

What started as a unique case in the 1980s became a generalised phenomenon in the 1990s. Ease of transportation, the global revolution in communications, the enduring economic crisis of the third world, combined with protracted internal conflicts and social upheavals, have led to a globalisation of population displacement.

A combined mass if refugees, asylum-seekers ad illegal migrants has been converging on western Europe in the quest foe an economic El Dorado. And more often than not, the purpose is not so much to leave as it is to arrive. There are two constant factors: first asylum-seekers-cum-migrants move towards countries where they can join an existing community of compatriots. This is a pall factor which means that Tamils will go principally to Switzerland, Canada Britain; Kosovars will mostly head for Germany, Switzerland and Austria.


Second, the population flux will converge towards those countries that provide the more generous social benefits or the best living conditions. It is generally understood that personal safety is the prime concern of refugees and that they should seek asylum in the first country where they would be out of harm’s way. In practice, this is hardly ever the case.


The illegal arrival in Britain of a Kurd who has travelled through Greece, Italy and France can have many motivations, but the need for protection is not one of them. Likewise, the Tamil who arrives in Switzerland after journeying through India, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany can hardly claim that it was impossible to claim asylum in any of these countries. Personal convenience takes precedence over protection and what might initially have been a quest for refuge becomes more often than not a an asylum-shopping spree. While the phenomenon is understandable, when multiplied by the hundreds and thousands, it becomes unbearable for the few countries that end up with a disproportionate burden of arrivals.

Fear of Persecution

Current asylum procedure is based on the Convention on Refugees, drafted by Western governments in 1951 in the context of population displacements following World War Two. The Convention spells out two basic principals. It defines an refugee as someone who has a well founded fear of persecution for political or religious reasons or for belonging to a specific social group. It provides that the person concerned should not be returned to a country or area where they would be in danger.

Based on these principals, western European governments established national procedures through which an asylum-seeker can claim refugee status. By and large these procedures have been exceedingly generous. Not only do they provide social benefits for those waiting for a decision on their status, but they also include complex safeguards to ensure that no genuine asylum-seeker is denied refugee status. This was put in place when the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers were bona fide refugees. Half a century later there is a massive and complex influx composed of a minority of refugees needing asylum intermingled either with refugees who seek to migrate or with migrants pretending to be refugees.

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This article was first published in September edition of The World Today - Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

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About the Author

Alexander Casella is Assistant Director and Geneva Representative of the Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development. He was previously Director for Asia at UNHCR. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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