Political asylum is the right to seek shelter somewhere if one has a reasonable fear of persecution. It is an ancient concept, with civilizations like Greece and Rome both respecting the right to asylum and legislating it. Many countries offer asylum to people on an individual basis. Depending on a nation's laws, someone can apply for asylum in a number of different ways, and if the application is successful, that person may live and work in the host country.
In ancient times, criminals and people who were being persecuted could seek refuge in neighboring nations or designated sanctuaries. With the rise of the Christian church, many churches also became places of sanctuary for people seeking asylum. By law, people could not disturb asylum-seekers in a church, and churches were entitled to protect the people in their care. This concept persists in many nations, although some laws allow criminals to be apprehended when they seek refuge in a church, while true asylum-seekers are left alone.
Modern laws about the right to asylum generally grant it to people who fear persecution because of their race, nationality, origin, ethnicity, cultural or religious beliefs, or political activity. Some nations also grant it to people seeking protection from gender discrimination; for example, women in nations with Sharia law may seek asylum to avoid severe punishments for adultery. In the case of mass groups of refugees who are displaced, applications may be streamlined and fast tracked, as a courtesy.
Prevailing laws about political asylum vary, but as a general rule, someone must indicate that he or she wishes to seek asylum upon entering a country, although in some cases, an application may be filed later, as might be the case when someone travels on a routine trip and learns that it would be dangerous to return home. The application can include a wide range of supporting information, and people may have up to a year or more to gather the documents and support they need. If rejected, that applicant may be deported if he or she is in the country illegally, or may be asked to go through another application process to receive a resident alien card or extended visa.
Many countries around the world take the right to political asylum very seriously, and international organizations have spelled out rules and regulations in an attempt to keep asylum laws uniform. Many organizations will also help people who believe that they are entitled to the right to political asylum, offering legal assistance, housing and job placement, and assistance with filing for permanent residency or citizenship.