A Right to Safe Haven

06/18/2015 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

As World Refugee Day approaches, it is worth remembering that the right to seek asylum was established during the post-WWII realization that the Nazis were able to kill so many people because there were no safe havens for those fleeing Hitler's murderous plan. As the SS St. Louis carrying hundreds of refugees was turned away from countries including the United States and Canada, the captain plotted to run it aground in a desperate measure to save lives.

Seventy-five years later, the right to seek asylum has been eviscerated, and now, the reality has reached dire levels -- almost 60 million people around the world have been displaced from their homes. Syrians fleeing the murderous Assad government are drowning at sea as Europe turns its back on them. In Asia, Rohingya facing life-threatening persecution are dying at sea. In search of refuge, Syrians and Rohingya are choosing to risk exploitation and death over the extreme persecution and fear they face at home.

Despite clarity over the need for a right to seek asylum, the system has often been politicized, starting with Cold War politics. And there is nothing new about interdiction at sea. The United States welcomed with open arms nearly anyone fleeing from Cuba, even as it stopped boats of Haitians. The U.S. government opposed the Cuban government and supported the dictatorial governments of the Duvaliers.

Since the 1951 Refugee Convention was adopted, governments have undermined the right to seek asylum. For example, in the late 1990s, Australia insisted that refugees should stay in camps and not actually be permanently resettled. More recently, the Australian government decided to process refugees off-shore and keep asylum seekers arriving by boat in Nauru where conditions are abominable.

Many countries have adopted the United States' longstanding practice of detaining asylum seekers. To be clear, a government may detain a claimant if it is concerned that he or she is not who they claim to be or may be excludable (for example, wanted for torture). In all other cases, asylum seekers should not be detained. There is a very good reason for this.

Many asylum seekers have suffered from persecution in their home countries. They have been arbitrarily detained and often tortured, including being subjected to sexual violence. Depriving them of their liberty is not only unlawful, it raises the risk of re-traumatization. The recent reports out of Texas, where children and their families have fled violence in Central America, is a case in point. They fled forced conscription into drug gangs -- gangs that have been empowered because of U.S. drug policies in the Americas -- only to be detained in the United States if they were lucky enough to avoid being summarily sent back across the border.

Fortress Europe was an attempt by the European Union to prevent asylum seekers from reaching its shores under the guise of preventing migrant workers from slipping across the border. In fact, the reason so many asylum seekers fleeing repression in places like Eritrea turn to ruthless smugglers is that countries have made it impossible to arrive in a country and request asylum unless the refugee is well-financed. The only means of gaining entry into a country that could and should provide safe haven is to enter illicitly. And many governments, again in the name of controlling migrant flows, have made it a crime to be in the country without proper documentation.

What governments have failed to realize is that as long as the international community does not provide protection for people in desperate straits, those people will risk everything to survive. For the people fleeing Syria, the failure is twofold. First, the UN Security Council has failed to fulfil its mandate to maintain international peace and security, which is why the conflict in Syria rages on four years after it began as civil society protests against a corrupt government. Secondly, the states that could have demanded that the Syrian government respect human rights took a hands-off approach and are now refusing to provide safe haven to those who have suffered years of repression. These asylum seekers have become targets as part of the Syrian government's strategy of attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure, including bombing hospitals and clinics and killing health professionals.

The story in Burma is also familiar. The government has a long history of repression and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Rohingya. In fact, the government has stripped all Rohingya of citizenship and imposed draconian laws that make day-to-day life a struggle, including denying the Rohingya medical care. Again, states that could have put pressure on the government to end repressive policies and practices are instead racing to invest in the new market Burma offers. As these states profit from the so-called liberalization of Burma, they are averting their eyes and shirking their responsibility to the hundreds of thousands suffering at the hands of the government.

It took World War II to wake the international community up to the need to ensure that no one targeted for persecution or death suffer due to lack of safe haven. How many Syrians and Rohingya will have to die in this century before that wake-up call is heard?