It’s time for the world to discuss the very concept of asylum and refuge all over again


A distressed vessel discovered by the US Navy 300 miles from shore with 90 people on board, including women and children. They provided assistance and took the Ecuadorian citizens to Guatemala. Photo: US Navy


“Some people say there is a God; others say there is no God; the truth probably lies somewhere in between”
– W. B. Yeats

The British government has proposed a massive overhaul of the way it treats asylum seekers, saying their claim to protection would be assessed by how they arrive rather than whether they deserve protection.

The idea that a refugee’s route to safety – ie, whether it is legal or not – is the pre-eminent criterion is not new. Australia tried it eight years ago. It was brutal, controversial and startlingly successful.

As I wrote in July 2018, “Australia has all but become a no-go area for the uninvited. Even people who genuinely seek asylum because of a credible fear of persecution in their home country would rather not make for Australia”.

The numbers attested to this. From a 2013 peak of 20,587 people arriving in Australia by sea, Canberra was boasting in 2018 that “it has been almost three years since the last people smuggling boat made it to Australia.”

Again, for all that Australia was unable to lay claim to the moral high ground (it was called out by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture for breaching the Convention on Torture) it had achieved what it seemed to want – dealing with thousands of unwanted people. (Click here to read my 2018 piece.)

So to the British plan. It has set off a storm of protest. Human rights lawyers have warned the plan is unlawful because it ignores Britain’s international obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention.

There are questions, anyway, if the UK will even be possible to execute the plan. For instance, it may be hard to return failed asylum-seekers to other European countries through which they passed on their way to the UK. Brexit doesn’t help.

Irrespective of execution, what about the morality of it?

I think the British proposal highlights the desperate need for a new international debate about the very concept of asylum and refuge.

The post-World War II consensus was always subject to an individual state’s willingness to comply with the Convention. And it was also about goodwill. The rights promulgated by the Convention were interpreted in different ways by different countries but the broad overall thrust was generally accepted.

This has changed in the past decade. It’s time to take a long hard look at what is do-able and how.

It’s the only way we can keep faith with our shared humanity.