The World

No Refuge

It’s not just Trump and the caravan. The rules that govern asylum are breaking down everywhere.

A group of migrants takes up one lane of a highway.
Salvadoran migrants embark on a journey in caravan to the United States in San Salvador on Wednesday.
Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

First it was sending 1,000 United States Army troops to secure the Southern border with Mexico. Then 5,000. Now President Donald Trump is considering banning all Central American migrants from entering the country, including asylum-seekers, and abolishing birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants.

Yes, Trump’s manipulation of the caravan of displaced Central Americans is a classic wag-the-dog public relations gambit: fabricate a threat before an election and orchestrate a “huge” show of force to distract and mobilize your base. But publicity stunt or not, the U.S. reaction to the caravan exemplifies a broader crisis. As governments from the European Union to Australia to Tanzania to Peru deter, reroute, or otherwise prevent refugees from crossing borders, they are hollowing out one of the clearest and most essential rules of international human rights law: the obligation to provide refuge to the persecuted.

Unlike many of the claims made about them by the president and his supporters, the horrors those in the caravan face in their home countries are anything but fake. Gangs in Central America’s northern triangle—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—terrorize civilians. They target women and children for forced recruitment, extort businesses on pain of death, and use sexual violence to control the population. Governments in the region have proved incapable of keeping the population safe. These circumstances make a convincing case for the right to asylum under U.S. immigration law. Though subject to judges’ interpretations, many such asylum cases have been approved.

The simple act of filing for asylum after setting foot on U.S. soil (no matter how you get here) triggers protection obligations under international law, which ostensibly prevent the government from sending migrants back to a country where their life or liberty is in danger. This restriction against sending asylum-seekers back, known as non-refoulement, is one of the strongest international human rights norms.

These norms emerged in the aftermath of World War II in part as a humanitarian imperative (history does not look kindly on the U.S. sending boats of Jews back to the perils of Nazi Germany), as well as a practical and political one. The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which codified the right to asylum and principle of non-refoulement, remain (more or less) the cornerstones of refugee law.

To claim these protections, though, migrants first have to cross a border. This is the loophole governments are using to get around their duty to protect refugees. Rather than sending refugees home, states enact evermore creative and brutal policies to block them from stepping foot in their territory. The right to asylum is steadily eroding not because governments are outright denying the right to asylum exists, but because they are effectively denying anyone from ever invoking it. This is exactly what we see with Trump sending active-duty troops to scare the Central American migrants away from the border. The same deterrence logic is behind increased detention policies in countries like Greece, Macedonia, and Hungary. The assumption is that if countries make asylum-seekers more vulnerable in the process of claiming refuge, they will be too afraid to try.

Sending troops to physically block refugees from entering is only one of myriad ways countries are skirting their asylum obligations. More often the tactics are less overt, though equally devastating. This summer the EU decided it would use “regional disembarkation platforms” to offload asylum-seekers in international waters or non-EU countries. If enforced, this means that migrants caught crossing the Mediterranean into Europe will be taken to processing centers in countries like Morocco or Turkey, presumably run by international organizations like the United Nations or the International Organization for Migration who will sort out which refugees qualify for asylum. The EU would then admit only those deemed to qualify for refugee status. But, by offshoring the processing centers, they effectively fob off their obligations by shifting the physical duties of refugee protection and non-refoulement to less powerful countries.

And if past experience is any guide, the “regional disembarkation platforms” are more likely to breed human rights violations than protect asylum-seekers. Australia uses similar offshoring techniques, dumping any refugees who try to enter the country by boat in detention facilities on the island nation of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Under this policy, the refugees on Nauru and Manus, many of whom fled from war zones in places like Iran, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, have been subject to sometimes fatal medical neglect and assaulted. The years of arbitrary detention have created widespread mental health issues such that asylum-seekers, including children as young as 12, regularly attempt suicide. Yet, Australia still refuses to process the refugees’ asylum claims on the mainland: Letting them onto Australian shores would invoke non-refoulement obligations, making it all that much harder to send them away. (Of course, if you are wealthy enough to enter Australia by plane, you’re more than welcome to apply for asylum.)

In the extreme, offshoring does not require a disembarkation point. In 2015, emboldened by Australia’s success banning boat arrivals, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, pushed boats of Rohingya refugees out of their territorial waters stranding them at sea.

In addition to deterring and offshoring refugees, an equally insidious trend is the use of labels like “economic migrant” to disqualify migrants from refugee status. To gain asylum protections, migrants must demonstrate that they fear persecution in their home country based on their “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” It’s no coincidence, then, that the rhetoric coming out the United States accuses Central American migrants of fleeing poverty. “Just” being poor does not qualify you for refugee status. But the notion that asylum-seekers fall into one of two categories, “economic migrants” or “real refugees,” is a gross mischaracterization of the causes of forced displacement. As journalist Sonia Nazario notes, even the migrants in the caravan who say they are fleeing for economic reasons are also fleeing the consequences of violence: The majority of businesses in these countries are closing because the owners can’t pay off the gangs threatening to kill them.

Across the world, governments have seized on this false dichotomy and weaponized the rhetoric of economic-induced migration. In Tanzania, the government is using the narrative of poverty-induced migration both to tighten borders against new Burundian refugees, as well as to repatriate those already in country. Burundian refugees do face acute poverty. But people flee for multiple reasons. Burundians are also fleeing a government-directed campaign of torture, forced conscription, murder, and sexual assault against anyone perceived to support the opposition. Using similar rhetoric, countries throughout Western Europe have denied refuge to Afghan asylum-seekers on the grounds that they’re seeking “a more comfortable life” rather than fleeing danger like the Syrians.

Another common trick is to use seemingly banal bureaucratic rules to stymie potential refugees from crossing borders. In August, Peru and Ecuador announced that they would require Venezuelan refugees to present a passport in order to cross the border. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. But refugees fleeing violence, turmoil, and poverty frequently do not have official documents or passports. So, these regulations effectively bar them from claiming asylum.

The humanitarian consequences of sending armed troops to deter migrants from crossing borders, rerouting migrants at sea to offshore detention centers, or rebranding asylum-seekers as “economic migrants” are horrific. Central American migrants denied asylum have been murdered after arriving back to their home countries. Gangs target returnees for retribution because they tried to escape. Similarly, youth militias allied with the ruling party in Burundi are likely to target returning Burundian refugees as traitors to the regime.

Deterrence, repatriation, and deportation are also simply ineffective at curbing the flow of migrants. In Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, some returning refugees faced such a violent backlash in their home communities that they were forced to flee again. The horrific treatment of Central American migrants in the U.S. has yet to deter asylum-seekers from trying to seek protection. In fact, mass deportation of Salvadoran migrants from the U.S. in the 1990s is directly linked to the proliferation of gang violence that forces refugees to flee today.

Still, the more states undercut asylum norms, the more likely it is that others will do the same. Trump’s show of force at the border is not only an issue for the midterms. It is one more ax hacking away at what is left the right to asylum. And it is sending a message to other countries, in bold letters, inviting them to do the same.