Seeking Asylum is a Human Right, not a Privilege

By Keelie Andrews-McAulay

UNHCR figures show that at the end of 2018 there were around 3.5 million people worldwide waiting to hear if their asylum claim was successful. 3.5 million people waiting to hear if they can live in a safe and peaceful environment without the daily fear of being harmed.  

A person seeking asylum is an individual who has fled their country and is seeking protection in another country. This is often due to fears of persecution for several reasons including race, religion, sexuality or nationality.  They are considered an asylum seeker whilst they wait to hear if their claim has been accepted. Once accepted by that country, they will be considered a refugee. 

Of the 300 asylum claims made in New Zealand, the Human Rights Commission found 15% are made at the border. This is generally from people fleeing their countries and seeking asylum as soon as they enter. Often in these cases, false documentation is used to escape their situations. Over half of those who seek asylum in New Zealand do so after living in the country for 180 days or more. In these types of cases, the person enters the community and realises it is much safer for them there than returning to their country. They may realise that what they feared being persecuted from in their home country, can be celebrated and enjoyed in New Zealand. 

This is not only an important legal right, but also a fundamental human right to seek asylum for any person experiencing persecution. This comes from numerous sources such as Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 states that “everyone has the right to seek asylum and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” This universal code, applicable to everyone across the globe, is stating it is your right to be free from persecution and harm. 

It is often thought that those seeking asylum are not as worthy of protection as quota refugees. Quota refugees are those who have been recognised as a refugee by UNHCR and are waiting for placement under a countries annual refugee quota. Many claim that people seeking asylum are queue jumping over quota refugees, stealing from someone who has been waiting for that spot. This is not the case. There is no queue. They are all people who have fled the harmful situations in the countries to ensure their safety. 

UNHCR tries to prioritise the refugees who are in the most vulnerable situations and in desperate need of resettlement. However, even in these circumstances resettling can be a long process. In most cases, the system works like a hospital triage system, prioritising those most in danger. There is no queue to jump. Many of those who claim asylum are unable to get to a UNHCR area to be put in the resettlement program in the first place. The only means they have to access a safe environment is by seeking asylum.

The 1951 Refugee Convention states there is no difference between those who claim asylum and those who are resettled in New Zealand under the refugee quota program. Yet quota refugees are eligible for settlement services and assistance whilst those that are asylum are given no help in resettlement. Arriving in New Zealand can be a daunting task. It can be especially difficult if no help is given during settlement in the community. This makes it seem as though quota refugees are more worthy than those who have sought asylum, as they are eligible for these services whilst those who have sought asylum are not. Pair this on top of the “queue jumper” stereotypes, it appears there are a lot of negative thoughts about asylum seekers. Yet they come from the same background and situations as quota refugees, just having different means of arrival. This is often due to the fact they are unable to get declared as a refugee before leaving or realise that they are much safer in the country they have claimed asylum.

Those who seek asylum do so because they have no other means of being able to protect themselves, and their families, from persecution in their countries of origin. They face serious and often deadly threats, living in constant fear of being harmed due to factors such as gender, sexuality, and political views. Seeking asylum is an important human right, and definitely not a privilege.