During its 100 years of existence as nation, the U.S. kept an open door, generous and friendly immigration policy. This country “was founded and built by individuals seeking refugee and better lives for their families” (Asylum prime).
In fact, before being a country, this land offered a “new home” to those persecuted for diverse reasons. A great example of this was “Azilum” a refugee settlement settled in 1793 in Pennsylvania, where French citizens fleeing from the revolution in France found protection.
Almost a century later, Emma Lazarus wrote (The New Colossus, 1883):
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
lift my lamp beside the golden door!””
However, the U.S. started to restrict immigration in the 20th century. In 1917, 1921 and 1924 the U.S. enacted laws that established quotas & “ceilings” regarding the number of immigrants admitted, depending on their country of origin. This evolution in the U.S. immigration law was fueled by prejudice against people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, as well as fear with regard to communism and poverty. The Great Depression also raised feelings of xenophobia and isolationism.
After WWI and WWII, the plight of refugees influenced the U.S and the international stances vis-à-vis of immigration and asylum. In 1948, the United Nations declared, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” while the U.S. passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. That Act allowed for a limited time, displaced people by war to enter to the country as legal permanent residents (LPRs).
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) created in 1952, is the cornerstone of U.S. immigration law. This statute defines and stipulates the conditions to grant asylum. Asylum claims may be based on either past persecution or well-founded fear of persecution. However, in 1996 the U.S “expanded and added more stringent bars to asylum eligibility and permitted the expedited removal for asylum-seekers who failed to establish credible fear of persecution” (Asylum prime)
Two years later, by including the principle of nonrefoulement (but only if risk of being tortured) the U.S made an effort to bring its legislation in compliance with international law. Back in 1998, Congress passed the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act, which prohibits the U.S. from returning and individual to the a country where he or she would be subject to torture.
However, the world is facing the biggest humanitarian emergency of this era, due to war, internal disturbances, famine and poverty. According to DHS-Annual Flow Report (from April 2016 but data provided is from 2014): in 2014, 69,975 persons were admitted as refugees. The leading countries were Iraq, Burma Somalia and Bhutan. In the same year, 23,533 individuals were granted asylum, the leading countries were China, Egypt and Syria.
In the European Union (EU), the main citizenships of asylum seekers are Syria, Afghanistan and Kosovo. In 2014, more than 660 000 third-country nationals applied for international protection, which represents +43% compared to 2013. In 2014, the EU granted refugee status to 99,440 applicants, most of them from Syria and Eritrea. It was an increase of about 74% compared to 2013. Those refugee decisions were issued by Germany, France, Sweden and United Kingdom (European Asylum Support Office).
Despite these numbers of asylum and refugee status granted, the 2015 UNHCR’s Annual Global Trends report shows that 65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution. The number of displaced people all over the world is unbelievably disproportionate to the number of cases granted asylum or refugee status in the U.S. or the EU. Unquestionably, the protection and the assistance to this population remain insufficient. Solutions are urgently needed; thus, the current protection framework must be improved at the national or international or the gap will still increase with catastrophic effects for the humankind.
*****Photo credits/REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman