What is an Asylum Seeker?

Dale Marshall

An asylum seeker is a person seeking sanctuary or refuge from persecution, generally at the hands of a government or its representatives. Asylum itself means sanctuary or protection. In modern times, an asylum seeker generally is someone fleeing from one country to another to avoid racial, religious, political or even sexual persecution. Historically, asylum seekers were more commonly accused criminals who would seek sanctuary from law enforcement in churches and their environs.

In the past, churches served as a safe haven for individuals seeking asylum.
In the past, churches served as a safe haven for individuals seeking asylum.

The concept of asylum has a long history and was practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece and ancient Israel. Part of it has to do with the sovereignty of the nation to which the asylum seeker has fled; by taking jurisdiction over the asylum seeker, the nation is asserting its sovereignty. Conversely, the nation that automatically repatriates asylum seekers can be considered to be acknowledging that the other nation's claim is superior to its own sovereignty. The concept was refined in medieval Europe, when churches were permitted under the common law to offer sanctuary to fugitives. Churches generally required authority from the sovereign to offer sanctuary, and some were permitted to offer sanctuary only within their walls, while others could offer sanctuary over a wider geographic area.

Priests may give asylum to people in need.
Priests may give asylum to people in need.

Those who fled to the sanctuary of a church, though, weren't given absolute protection. Instead, they generally earned themselves some time, perhaps a few weeks, during which they'd surrender any arms to the church and place themselves under the church's jurisdiction. At the end of this time, they'd make one of two choices: they could confess their guilt, give up all their property variously to the church and the state and go into exile, or they could proclaim their innocence and stand trial.

In modern times, the kind of sanctuary that churches can offer is very limited, and in many nations is recognized more as a courtesy than as an absolute right. When fugitives seek sanctuary in a church today, the usual outcome is the negotiation of the fugitive's surrender, at which point law enforcement is empowered to enter the church and seize the fugitive. An exception is the so-called "sanctuary movement" in the United States, where some churches and municipalities will harbor fugitives accused of illegal entry into the United States and won't facilitate their surrender to federal authorities.

When people flee official persecution in a nation, they'll generally seek out a nation that can reasonably be expected to offer them asylum based on their specific circumstances, often one of the Western democracies. Most nations have a formal application procedure for asylum seekers to follow upon their arrival, and cases are decided on a case-by-case basis. This process can be very politically sensitive, and there's no guarantee that an asylum seeker will in fact be granted asylum. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, multinational treaties have been established that establish some level of uniformity for the asylum process. In addition, some nations have started to include other reasons for granting asylum, such as sexual persecution and abuse.

The standards of asylum for criminals, on the other hand, have changed over the years. Most nations participate in extradition treaties that provide for the repatriation of criminal fugitives; however, many nations apply additional standards. For instance, some nations will only extradite fugitives for crimes they themselves recognize; that is, if a nation doesn't recognize an act as a crime, it will refuse to extradite persons within its jurisdiction to account for that crime to another nation. This can be a significant factor because some nations prosecute individuals for political and religious crimes, branding as criminals those who commit acts that in other nations are not crimes, like apostasy, fornication, and political dissent. Likewise, if the crime is recognized by both nations as a crime but the nation seeking extradition imposes a harsher punishment than would be imposed by the asylum nation, extradition might be refused.

There's sometimes confusion between asylum seekers and refugees. Refugees are large groups people driven from a region or nation for any of a wide variety of reasons, including war or other domestic unrest, natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis, and even economic circumstances. Unlike asylum seekers, who are fleeing persecution and whose cases are decided individually, refugees are handled as a group, and individual applicants must only verify that they meet the qualifications to be included in the group.

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Discussion Comments


@clintflint - The USA and England are also notorious for their ill treatment of asylum seekers. I've been told the big difference is whether or not they arrived by plane or by ship. If they could afford the plane they are usually not treated so badly. If they only managed to smuggle themselves into the country on a ship then they are usually put into what amounts to a concentration camp when they are caught.


@browncoat - In theory asylum seekers rights are concrete and considered to be something relatively sacred in international law, but in reality, that is rarely how it plays out, particularly in countries with a lot of poor asylum seekers.

My friend was dating a woman who worked with asylum seekers in Australia a while ago and she told me that they are treated very poorly there and are often locked up for years like prisoners, waiting for their chance to live in the country. Except that, unlike prisoners, they don't have basic rights, such as safety or adequate nutrition. The women and children live in rooms without lockable doors and sexual violence and abuse is common. Many of them develop mental illness from the stress and when they finally are given permission to enter the country, they have trouble adjusting.

I don't know what purpose this serves, but I do know that Australia is far from the only country that does this.


I think it's wonderful that there are places in the modern world that will do this. I mean, it's entirely without self interest to take on an asylum seeker, and if anything it can actually be bad for a country, because they might end up making an enemy of another country.

We tend to think that modern governments are always working on being self serving, but in this case I feel like they finally get something right.

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