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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Asylum Seekers and the Right to Illegal Entry

Rating: 5 votes, 5.00 average.
Do people fleeing persecution have a "right" to illegally enter the United States? A new report from Harvard Law School about changes in Canadian asylum policy got me thinking about this question.

The report, Bordering on Failure: Canada-US Border Policy and the Politics of Refugee Exclusion, concludes that recent changes to Canadian refugee and border policy have made it more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers to find refuge in Canada.

Training program for rookie Liaison Officers.

The recent changes include the Multiple Borders Strategy ("MBS"), whose goal is to “push the border out” and to “intercept improperly documented persons as far away from Canada’s territorial borders as possible.” Canada “enacts measures that deter and deflect the arrival of asylum seekers at… countries of origin, visa screening points, airline check in points, points of initial embarkation, transit areas, points of final embarkation, and points of final arrival.” How do they do this? Canada has 63 liaison officers in 49 "strategic locations around the world." The officers "train and work with airlines, local immigration authorities, and local law enforcement agencies to identify improperly documents persons, including some asylum seekers, and block them from boarding Canada-bound boats or planes." The officers have intercepted 73,000 people between 2001 and 2012. Another part of the MBS is to sanction airlines and shipping companies that allow improperly documented people to arrive in Canada. The Canadians have also imposed stricter visa requirements on people from refugee source countries when refugee arrivals from those countries increase. In short, Canada is doing more to block people from illegally entering the country. So what's wrong with that?

The Harvard report raises a few points. For one, some of those people blocked from arriving in Canada are refugees (though we don't know how many). The liaison officers and the carriers do not consider whether a person qualifies for asylum; they block anyone with improper documentation. Another problem is that by tightening security, some asylum seekers will resort to other means of gaining entry into Canada--human smuggling, for example. This puts the asylum seekers at risk of harm. The report concludes that by "closing its borders to asylum seekers, Canada is setting a poor example for other nations, and contributing to the deterioration of refugee protection around the world."

Aside from criticizing the (probable) negative impact of the MBS on asylum seekers, Harvard offers little in the way of solutions. Should Canada loosen its entry requirements? Should liaison officers allow people with fraudulent documents to go to Canada if those people express a fear of persecution? Should Canada get rid of the liaison officers so it is easier to enter Canada improperly? Should it eliminate carrier fines, so that airlines will be encouraged to allow anyone to fly into the country, even if they do not have permission to enter?

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that refugees who are rich enough to qualify for a visa or to hire a competent smuggler, will likely get in. Ditto for those clever enough to obtain fraudulent travel documents. Poor people, less educated people, people who are not resourceful enough, will not get in. Tightening or loosening the border (or even "pushing out" the border) will, as the Harvard report points out, exclude people in "arbitrary and unprincipled ways," but this impact is tiny compared to the basic--and very arbitrary--distinction between the rich, the educated, and the lucky, who will probably get in, and the poor, the uneducated, and the unlucky, who will probably be excluded. Thus, even if Canada had not implemented any of the new restrictive changes, the asylum seekers who manage to reach Canada are able to get there because of factors (such as wealth) that are completely unrelated to the merits of their asylum claims. Given that the ability of potential asylum seekers to enter Canada is completely arbitrary anyway, why should it matter if Canada imposes another layer of arbitrariness on those seeking admission? In other words, why should it matter if an arbitrary portion of an arbitrary group is blocked from seeking asylum?

Or, to return to our initial question in a more specific way: Do those asylum seekers lucky enough to have the ability to reach a safe country have a "right" to travel to that country to seek asylum? If you accept the basic premise of sovereignty of nations (and there are very good reasons not to), it is difficult to answer that question in the affirmative. But to answer that question in the negative would invalidate much of international law and practice related to protecting refugees.

Perhaps the key to resolving this dilemma is to recognize that most countries--including Canada and the United States--have given up some of their sovereignty when they voluntarily entered into treaties protecting refugees. Nevertheless, the Harvard report highlights an odd reality: People who are smart enough, rich enough or sneaky enough to evade border security and gain entry into a safe country have a right to seek asylum in that country. But those who are unable to reach a safe country--even if the reason for their failure is that the safe country managed to prevent their entry--do not have a right to seek asylum in that country.

So I guess the answer to the initial question is a qualified yes (or perhaps a qualified no, if you are a glass-is-half-empty sort of person): Asylum seekers have a right to illegally enter the United States, but only if they manage to get in. Or, to paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, "rights" are what you can get away with.

Originally posted on the Asylumist:

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