A Few Remarks about Refugees and Asylum on World Refugee Day

On the occasion of World Refugee Day, and in light of the current US administration’s family separation policy, which apparently applies to those seeking asylum as well, I thought I’d share my (limited) experience with refugees as well as clarify some misconceptions about who qualifies for asylum under international law. 

In August of 2015 I was floating with a friend in an Austrian lake, talking about what seemed at the time like a distant crisis in Syria. Syrian refugees had been arriving in small numbers, and the conventional wisdom was that they tended to be doctors, engineers, university students—on average better educated than the local populace and, hence, not what you might imagine your typical refugee to be. But the sun was warm, the water cool and our attention to the plight of displaced persons short.

That changed a month later. I was at work when I heard the news that a large group of refugees—who had been held up in Budapest and not allowed to board trains headed west towards Austria and Germany—had started walking to Vienna on the freeway. The scene was, well, to be honest, a little shocking. You see, Germany had recently announced that, contrary to EU rules governing the adjudication of asylum applications, Germany would not return applicants from Syria to the EU country where they first crossed the EU frontier. From one day to the next, there was a surge of movement towards Germany, with Austria the second to last country along the so-called Balkan route.

I went home that Friday thinking, “Surely this is not how the EU is going to manage the asylum process! This is chaos!” And indeed it was. Austria was caught flat-footed. It’s a wealthy country with a high standard of living, but a small population of just 8 million, and thousands of refugees were on their way. After some frantic telephone calls with Berlin, Vienna decided to pick up the asylum seekers at its border and deliver them to Germany at public expense. On the one hand, this spared a vulnerable population the predations of human traffickers and smugglers. But on the other, playing taxi was just about all Austria could manage; despite having a civil service nearly as formidable as Germany, the logistical challenges overtaxed available resources.

That fall some 1 million asylum-seekers passed through Austria. About 10% ended up staying, and over 88,000 asylum applications were filed. (If adjusted for the difference in population, this would be the equivalent of 3.5 million applications for a country the size of the US; doable but a major undertaking.)

The essentially uncontrolled arrival of so many asylum seekers left a mark on the country. For weeks the two main train stations were a sea of humanity and the trains were packed to capacity with Syrians, Afghans and others on their way to Germany. Asylum seekers quickly filled the established facilities and impromptu quarters were set up in practically every neighbourhood; walking to work I would often give directions to small groups of people who were being sent from one office to the next with the instructions written in a language they didn’t understand. Playgrounds and other public areas developed new demographics.

For many Austrians, the response was to leap into action and assist those in need. My in-laws, for example, took advantage of their retirement and background to teach German to refugees on a voluntary basis. But others were unsettled by the rapid changes. And it turned out that most of the asylum seekers were not doctors and teachers; some of the new arrivals even committed crimes, which, coupled with the government’s inability to maintain law and order on its border, fed a tide of resentment that led to early elections a couple of years later, gifting the country a government that explicitly ran on taking a hard line on refugees.

This development underlines how easy it is to play on people’s fears in uncertain times, as if dim views of would-be refugees are sufficient to halt the global dynamics that brought them to the border in the first place. At the same time, integration of refugee populations is a long term effort that requires more than a burst of goodwill and some in-kind donations. While acknowledging that legitimate concerns certainly exist, I’m afraid I don’t have  much of an antidote to demagoguery to offer, but perhaps I can address a few misconceptions about refugees and asylum that might be plaguing some Americans at the moment.

Misconception #1: You have to be fleeing a war zone to apply for asylum/be recognised as a refugee.

In fact, the relevant international instrument, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, was a product of the Second World War but defines a refugee as

someone 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. (Article I.A.2)

Persecution is the key word here, not war. In practice, of course, war can foster persecution but it is not a precondition for granting refugee status. This means that people from countries that are at peace can still apply for and be granted asylum.

Misconception #2: Asylum is just an excuse for criminals to gain entrance to the US!

It turns out that the drafters of the Convention thought of that. According to Article I.F:

The provisions of this Convention shall not apply to any person with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that:

(a)  he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime,or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes;

(b)  he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee;

(c)  he has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

So no sins are absolved and no government’s hands are tied simply by virtue of filing an asylum application. Everybody who applies for asylum goes through a series of background and security checks. I suppose it’s possible that some criminals fool asylum officers, but the asylum application is no carte blanche.

Misconception #3: Yeah, but you can’t just cross the border illegally and declare asylum! That’s wrong!

According to the USCIS, being in the United States illegally does not (necessarily) preclude one from applying for (and being granted) asylum:

You may apply for asylum if you are at a port of entry or in the United States. […] You may apply for asylum with USCIS regardless of your immigration status if:

  • You are not currently in removal proceedings
  • You file an asylum application within one year of arriving to the United States or demonstrate that you are within an exception to that rule.

So let’s cool the fire and fury whipped up by the law and order types—”illegal immigration” is not an automatic disqualifier.

Well, this post hardly does the topic justice, but I hope it encourages some of you to think about how you view those seeking the protection offered by the United States. It won’t do to be naive, of course, about the challenges countries face in addressing the growing numbers of refugees worldwide, but let’s not be underinformed and cynical either. While the current administration struggles with doing the right thing on the borders of the United States, individuals don’t have to wait to heed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:

On World Refugee Day, it’s time to recognise [the] humanity [of refugees] in action – and challenge ourselves, and others, to join them – in receiving and supporting refugees in our schools, neighbourhoods, and workplaces. This is where solidarity starts – with all of us.


  1. Thank you, Peter.

  2. Well said. I hope you can share more on the topic – a better understanding helps.

  3. I appreciate your clarity on this important issue.

  4. Thanks for sharing this info, Peter.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this.

  6. Thanks, Peter. Let me add that at the core of the current (and not yet solved) family separation policy, is what happens, what should happen, to people seeking asylum during the application, background, and security check process, especially in those cases (and how many such cases are there or should there be?) that can take a year or more in the current system.

  7. All very well said and extremely important. Thank you.

  8. Bodensmate says:

    “On the occasion of World Refugee Day, and in light of the current US administration’s family separation policy”.
    If I understand correctly, this policy was first signed into law by GWBush, and kept as policy through the 8 year Obama administration as well.
    It would come across as more genuine, and it would invite ALL people to participate in solving this issue if that very important information were not left out.

  9. Kristine says:

    “If I understand correctly,”

    You do not. Do more research.

  10. Bodensmate says:

    I’m perfectly willing to be educated, but your response comes across as hateful and condescending rather than offering me anything valuable.

  11. Bodensmate,

    I have heard a lot of people say the same thing regarding GWB and Obama. While Border Patrol and ICE have always had issues, this specific policy–created and implemented by Donald Trump in order to deter immigration to the border–is brand new. Donald Trump intentionally started separating children from parents at the border in order to discourage desperate families. from entering the U.S. While GWB and Obama had the decency to schedule these families for a hearing and let them go free until their cases could be heard, Trump decided to change that policy and instead tear families apart and imprison them.

    If your sources tell you otherwise, it may be time to identify them as unreliable and find better sources.

  12. Kristine says:

    Not hateful, Bodensmate, just impatient with disingenuous talking points.

  13. Bodensmate says:

    Thank you for the response and the information. I don’t really have a source (I rarely watch tv). I only have Sling and Netflix. No news channels. I usually just get Google news notifications on my phone.
    Somewhere I read that the pictures of the children that were being shown were from 2014.
    I don’t have time to do lots of research, and I very much enjoy reading the perspectives off BCC bloggers. However I rarely comment since I know I’m much less educated and will likely receive a response similar to Kristine’s.

  14. Bodensmate says:

    Whatever assumptions you are making of me are unfair.
    I realize I probably don’t know as much as you on the subject, and I guess I was repeating something that was wrong.
    However, your response was nowhere close to accepting of me. I can only assume that you have some kind of negative opinion of me because of my lack of education.

  15. Kristine says:

    My response was pretty neutral, Bodensmate. You’re making a lot of assumptions about me to get all of that out of six words.

  16. Kristine says:

    (A good place to start is with reading everything Dara Lind writes at Vox and elsewhere).

  17. Bodensmate says:

    You admitted being impatient with disingenuous talking points, which is why you responded to me that way.
    But I was not being disingenuous. And as I said, I guess I repeated something that was not true (though not for any nefarious reason).

  18. Bodensmate says:

    Thank you for the Dara Lind advice. I will check her out.

  19. Bodensmate – thank you for being patient with those of us who get occasionally tired of trying to fix the same misconceptions. It’s a hard thing and it’s not easy to stay nice about it, even to those truly seeking.

    This is the best rundown I’ve found on how this problem progressed – http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/jun/06/what-you-need-know-about-trump-administrations-zer/

    The law is old, but the policy on how to execute the law is new. Both are problems in their own way, but the policy is demonstrably worse.

  20. Bodensmate says:

    Thank you Frank. Luckily I’m on my lunch break and I had a chance to read that. It’s long, but gives a pretty good ‘play by play’ on how things got the way they are.

    By the way, thank you for your patience with me as well. I assume most of you BCC commenters know each other, and I am probably a little of an outsider. Thanks for taking the time with me.

  21. Bodensmate, in this post I wrote a while back (i.e., before the family separation policy stormed the airwaves) you’ll find a link in the second paragraph to an interview wuth John Kelly talking about family separation:


  22. And for what it’s worth, assuming I’m disingenuous in your first comment isn’t exactly getting off to a constructive start. But I can roll with the punches, and I’m glad you’re here.

  23. Bodensmate says:

    You are right. I did make that assumption. I sincerely apologize.
    Thank you for the additional links.

  24. Really good Peter. Thank you.

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