On Sunday, June 18, 58 Chinese asylum seekers were found suffocated in a tomato truck in England, rekindling debate in European Union countries about asylum policy. The Elián González controversy has kept asylum in the news in the United States. What is asylum, and who gets it?
Asylum laws are based on the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which was passed to cope with the masses of World War II refugees in Europe. Most Western countries grant asylum to aliens who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin for one or more of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. Those granted asylum are allowed to work and cannot be returned to their country of origin. In the United States, the attorney general can revoke asylum if the subject breaks laws or if circumstances in the country of origin fundamentally change.
Canada, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States attract the most asylum applications. In 1997, the United States received (or reopened) 123,000 asylum cases, more than any other country except Germany. Most asylum seekers come from Afghanistan, China, El Salvador, Haiti, Iraq, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. In 1997, 35 percent of all asylum applications were approved worldwide, according to the United Nations. The United States approved only 19 percent that year (the U.S. approval rate has increased since then).
Aliens can apply for U.S. asylum by 1) making an affirmative claim before an Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum officer while their visa is still valid; or 2) making a defensive claim before an immigration judge once deportation proceedings have begun. To win a defensive claim hearing before an immigration judge, the applicant must first demonstrate to an immigration officer a credible fear of persecution in his country of origin. Asylum seekers interdicted en route to the United States--usually on the high seas--are often sent to a third country if their claim is successful.
In recent years, many countries have tightened their asylum rules. The United States streamlined its asylum process in 1997, giving INS officers more discretion to deport. Germany and Great Britain have reduced benefits paid to asylum seekers whose cases are pending. Many European Union countries send asylum seekers to third countries through which they traveled and that are deemed safe. France now only accepts applicants who are fleeing from state persecution. Those fleeing from unofficial rebel persecution in, say, Sierra Leone are not eligible. The United States tends not to accept applicants from Haiti because they are considered economic refugees, not political refugees.
The INS refused to consider Elián González's asylum application because under the law, only a parent can seek asylum for his child. By any measure, Elián would have had a hard time meeting any one of the five conditions for asylum, even though his mother fled Cuba.