Everyone Has the Right to Seek Asylum

November 5, 2015

Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia on May 15, 2015. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia on May 15, 2015. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country willing to take them in. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

We all have an obligation to help

The right to flee from danger and seek safe haven ought to be something we all innately understand. And yet, one need only turn on the television, browse the Internet or pick up a paper to find arguments against it. Under international law, states have an obligation to help people fleeing persecution by not sending them back in to danger. After the second World War, the global community, joined by the United States, began to create a system of agreements to ensure that governments would act together to protect human lives and dignity and take care of those most in need. It may not have worked as well as it should have or could have, but it did set standards that governments are expected to achieve.


These simple but profoundly important principles—that people have the right to escape persecution, and states have the obligation to protect those seeking refuge— have been taking quite a beating recently. Around the world, governments are building walls, erecting fences, deploying security forces to prevent people from coming into their countries. Elsewhere, governments have placed advertisements in countries impacted by conflict, warning people not to attempt to seek asylum in their country. There are credible reports of some governments paying traffickers to return the refugees they have just trafficked to their home countries.

A girl reacts after receiving tear gas at the Hungarian border with Serbia. ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images
A girl reacts after receiving tear gas at the Hungarian border with Serbia. ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

It took the image of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach in Turkey to spark desperately needed action to help refugees fleeing to Europe. No similar flash point occurred in Southeast Asia, where ethnic Rohingya continue to flee increasing violence in Myanmar, leaving thousands of desperate people at risk of be returned or “lost” in refugee camps characterized by abysmal conditions.


Refugees and internally displaced in Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and the Central African Republic face attacks and are increasingly at risk of being trafficked or suffering the consequences of xenophobia and racial discrimination. Women refugees and internally displaced have the additional challenge of navigating an increased risk of rape and other gender-based violence.

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Syrian refugees arrive at the Greek island of Kos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece in a dinghy on August 15, 2015. Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

There are currently an estimated 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. 19.5 million people have been forced to seek safety abroad, but due to the lack of leadership by more wealthy countries, less wealthy, mainly Middle Eastern, African and South Asian countries now host 86% of all refugees.

<> on July 20, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. The Australian government yesterday announced all future boat arrivals by asylum seekers will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and settlement. The announcement marks a major shift in policy direction by the centre-left Australian Labor Party government.
Cole Bennetts/Getty Images

Sadly, the United States also shares the blame for the lack of leadership in addressing this crisis. President Obama’s announcement that the United States would increase the number of asylum seekers from the Middle East is too little and too focused on just one region. The Obama administration and Congress must set the example and increase the overall number of refugees that are resettled in the United States, initially starting with a focus on populations at the greatest risk, increasing support and funding for countries hosting refugees, and streamlining the U.S. resettlement program so that is does not take so long.

Stranded boats at Southeast Asia - Rohingya Refugee

To make that happen, your voice is needed. Right now, the loudest voices in the public discussion are fanning fears that refugees are “Trojan Horses” for terrorism. Your voice is needed to change the narrative.

Start by joining our  “Eight Ways to Solve the World Refugee Crisis” campaign. You can also email or tweet @POTUS to tell President Obama that the U.S. can and should do more to help refugees. And at AIUSA’s upcoming regional conferences, Amnesty members will learn what steps they can do to lobby their local governing bodies to join Durham, NC, in endorsing refugee resettlement in their own community.

Human Rights Action Camp in Lampedusa