The right of asylum is the right to receive sanctuary or refuge in a foreign state, granted by that state to an individual who has been forced to flee his or her native country. The right most often pertains to political refugees, who are prevented from returning to their own countries because of a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion"—to quote from the United Nations Convention of 1951, which first established a definition of these refugees and outlined their rights to work, education, social security, and access to the courts in their country of asylum. The convention, augmented by a 1967 protocol, is administered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The notion of asylum is an ancient one. For many centuries, fugitives from the law, war, or private disputes could often find asylum in churches. As the authority of the church declined in Europe, these once-inviolable shelters became less secure. It has always been the prerogative of a state, however, to choose whether or not to grant asylum to a refugee. Diplomatic asylum, based on extraterritoriality—that is, the principle that a nation's embassies and consulates are an extension of its territory—has sometimes been granted to political fugitives. (For example, Cardinal Mindszenty lived as a refugee in the U.S. embassy in Budapest, Hungary, from 1956 to 1971.)
After World War II, many thousands of European refugees were allowed to settle in the United States. From 1952, however, with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, the United States recognized as political refugees only those who had fled from Communist countries. The law was liberalized in 1980, using the language of the UN Convention. Nevertheless, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (renamed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2003) rarely granted the status of "political" refugee—even refugees from war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s and Haiti in the early 1990s were deemed "economic" refugees. Provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which took effect in October 1997, were aimed at eliminating numerous cases of frivolous and fraudulent applications for asylum. The U.S. government was criticized by immigration groups when shortly before the start of the Iraq War in March 2003 it announced that it would automatically detain people seeking political asylum from Iraq and 32 other countries where Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) or other terrorist groups were known to operate while their applications were being considered (a process that can take six months or more) in an effort to keep terrorists from slipping into the United States undetected.
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Plaut, W. Gunther, Asylum: A Moral Dilemma (1995).
Rubin, G. E., The Asylum Challenge to Western Nations (1984).
Sinha, S. P., Asylum and International Law (1971).
Tomsho, Robert, The American Sanctuary Movement (1987).