The UN has declared that asylum is an inalienable human right, and most countries offer it. The principle is that nations should safeguard people who face persecution or danger when their countries can not or do not want to protect them. There have long been debates about who deserves the sanctuary, but today discord is going deeper. In the wake of violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and parts of Africa and Central America, the number of asylum seekers has risen to record levels. While most of them are hosted by neighboring countries, a crackdown on refugees in the United States and Europe is raising doubts that support for the asylum concept can survive.
The total number of refugees has increased steadily since 2012, to 19.9 million by the middle of 2018, fueling the antipathy towards strangers in some host countries. Of the 1.9 million new refugee status applicants in 2017, the United States had the largest number – 332,000, with 43% coming from Central America, where gang violence has become widespread. US President Donald Trump has joined his offer to suppress immigration with an effort to radically remodel the nation's asylum system. It has banned entry to citizens of six countries, five of them mostly Muslims, and has reduced the number of refugees who can be admitted to the United States to 30,000, a historical minimum. His administration has excluded asylum for people fleeing domestic violence and gangs, and for those who have illegally crossed the US border with Mexico. It imposed a policy of detaining anyone who was illegally caught while crossing the border, including those seeking refugee status. The parents were separated from their children, causing a public protest that led Trump to back down. In October, Trump threatened to cut foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in retaliation for a so-called caravan of migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States. In the European Union, the resentment for the influx of refugees has led leaders to consider creating holding centers, probably in Africa, to manage asylum seekers. Officials have discouraged groups from saving such people in the Mediterranean Sea. Hungary, led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has made it a crime to help migrants seek asylum.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees affirms that the concept of asylum is one of the "first distinctive signs of civilization", citing references to it in texts of 3,500 years. The word derives from the ancient Greek word for freedom from seizure. A 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol are the modern legal framework for asylum, which defines refugees as persons who can prove to be persecuted at home on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political conviction or social group. Agreements in Europe, Africa and South America have broadened the definition by including those fleeing generalized violence. Among today's refugees, Syrians are the largest group. They are fleeing a civil war, like the Afghans and South Sudanese who make up the closest groups. Among the victims of the persecution there are Christians who escape forced conversion to Islam in the Arab countries and Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar fleeing the abuse of their fellow countrymen. Asylum applications worldwide amounted to 1.9 million in 2017. The United States presented the largest number of new applicants, with 43% coming from Central America. In 2017, around 732,500 asylum applications were accepted, and a little more – 754,100 – were rejected globally. Asylum was used as a political tool, as when Americans welcomed Cubans and Vietnamese who sought refuge from communism. Requests for safe haven by gay, bisexual and transgender people have increased in recent years.
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Attacks in Europe and the United States by assassins linked or inspired by foreign jihadist groups have generated the fear that future terrorists will hide among those who seek refuge. Critics of pro-asylum policies also fear that the hiring of refugees can lead to higher rates of crime and unemployment. Trump administration officials have claimed that the asylum system is abused by scammers. Other critics of the asylum assessments in the United States say that they are so arbitrary that they amount to "refugee roulette". This has promoted the development of a cottage-like industry to provide refuge seekers with compelling personal stories that may be exaggerated or false. Defenders of the control process say it is rigorous, even if no system is infallible. Asylum advocates stress the universal obligation to protect the vulnerable and observe that many of the people that nationalists like Trump would keep out were fleeing terrorism. The debate on asylum in the United States and Europe can overshadow the fact that the burden of hosting refugees around the world lies more with the poorer countries closer to major conflicts, such as Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda. .
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Published for the first time on May 13, 2015
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