Asylum Explained

Jul 05, 2013, 01:36 IST | Vidya Heble

Even as the Edward Snowden issue simmers with many countries including India turning down his request for asylum, a look at different dimensions of the phenomenon itself

Fleeing persecution, people from all over the world have sought and received shelter in other countries over the years. Sigmund Freud as well as Albert Einstein were both refugees from Nazi Germany, and history holds the names of many prominent scientists, sportspersons and activists who have sought asylum in other countries.

Ukrainian Internet Party activists hold a ‘tap the phone and internet lines’ protest outside the US Embassy in Kiev to attract attention to the violation of rights following the US Internet surveillance programme exposed by Snowden (photo at R). PICS/AFP

Who can seek asylum?
Anyone can seek asylum in another country, if they feel persecuted in their home country. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Asylum seekers are governed by The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which guides national legislation concerning political asylum.

US school teacher Andrew Cromeek who plays Edward Snowden in Verax, the first film on the fugitive US intelligence leaker, poses during an interview in Hong Kong

Grounds for seeking asylum
Under these agreements, a refugee is a person who is outside their own country’s territory (or place of habitual residence if he or she is stateless) owing to fear of persecution on protected grounds. Protected grounds include race, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. Under a principle of refugee law called “non-refoulement”, a victim of persecution cannot be returned to their persecutor or to places where their life or freedom could be threatened. Sexual persecution is now accepted in some countries as a legitimate category for asylum claims, when it can be proved that the state is not giving protection.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is greeted upon arrival at El Alto Airport in La Paz, Bolivia, after a flight interrupted by an unscheduled stopover caused by suspicions that US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was travelling with him. His plane touched down near La Paz almost 17 hours after leaving Vienna

Under the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention), “asylum seeker” means a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the grounds that if he is returned to his country of origin he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. He remains an asylum seeker for so long as his application or an appeal against refusal of his application is pending.

Ecuador President Rafael Correa speaking at a public programme in Manabi, near Quito.

“Refugee” means an asylum seeker whose application has been successful. In its broader context, it refers to a person fleeing situations such as civil war or natural disaster, or fearing persecution as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

“Economic migrant” means a person who has left his own country and seeks employment in another country.

India has traditionally had a compassionate and welcoming attitude towards asylum seekers. History itself has populated India with refugees fleeing persecution, such as people from Iran. Although India is not a signatory to the 1951 convention, it continues to grant asylum and provide direct assistance to some 200,000 refugees from neighbouring states.

India's most famous refugee is probably the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland of Tibet following the Chinese army’s suppression of a nationalist uprising in 1959. He was followed by about 80,000 Tibetans, who were allowed to settle in India by the Nehru government. Several states have provided land for the settlement of Tibetan refugees, and the Dalai Lama heads the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

Besides, large numbers of people from neighbouring countries -- Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar to name a few -- have sought and received asylum in India. The family of slain Afghan president Najibullah has also been given shelter in New Delhi since the 1990s after the Taliban rule of Afghanistan began.

Edward Snowden (he turned 30 on June 21 this year) is a former technical contractor for the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Snowden, disturbed by what he felt was violation of people’s rights, informed the UK newspaper The Guardian about classified intelligence programmes including interception of telephone data and Internet surveillance. The paper published the stories based on Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013. Snowden said the leaks were an effort “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.

US federal prosecutors have charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information, and knowingly communicating classified intelligence to an unauthorised person.

Snowden has said, “Although I am convicted of nothing, (the United States) has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person.” However, Snowden is not actually stateless, as his citizenship has not been revoked. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, everyone has the right to a nationality and no one can be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality or denied the right to change it. He has been deprived of a travel document from his country of residence, which makes it impossible for him to move around without specific permissions. The US government has cancelled Snowden’s passport and has offered him a “one-entry travel document” to return.

Ideally, Snowden should seek refuge in a country that does not have an extradition treaty with the US. However, political considerations may still trump the absence of a treaty, so Snowden’s best bet is probably a country which has historically had bad diplomatic ties with the US.

Most of the countries to which Snowden has applied for asylum have either refused or have reserved comment. Some have cited their laws, which required him to be in the country at the time of applying. However, till such time as there is no arrest warrant issued for him, he is unlikely to be deported if he actually arrives in a country seeking refuge.

The plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was not allowed to cross the air space of France and Portugal on July 3, as it was suspected to be carrying Snowden. However, Bolivia has denied this. Morales reportedly told Russian television that “Bolivia is ready to accept people who disclose espionage if one can call it this way.”

Edward Snowden has been waiting it out at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23. Though airports are under the jurisdiction of the country of location, Russia has not taken any action on Snowden, treating the airport transit area as not in its control. Snowden had made it a point to be out of the US when the story was broken in The Guardian, as he felt he could face retribution for it. He has said he did not want to remain anonymous, as that would have resulted in his colleagues being harassed by the authorities.

Compiled by Vidya Heble

The Dalai Lama
The spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, crossed the border into India on March 31, 1959, after a 15-day journey on foot over the Himalayas from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The Dalai Lama left Lhasa along with an entourage of 20 men, including six cabinet ministers, following a fierce Chinese crackdown that followed the Tibetan uprising earlier in the month.

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama, India’s most famous asylum seeker. Pic/Shadab Khan 

The Dalai Lama had to cross the 500-metre-wide Brahmaputra river, and endure the harsh climate and extreme heights of the Himalayas, travelling at night to avoid the Chinese sentries. He finally crossed the Indian border at the Khenzimana Pass.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and has become a symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression. Though he has stopped publicly seeking independence for Tibet, he advocates what he calls the “middle way”, self-rule for Tibet within China. However, China has not accepted this and is believed to be still mistrustful of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetans. Tibet remains under Chinese control and is governed by a China-appointed Panchen Lama, who is not recognised by the Dalai Lama.

Doors Slam Shut for Snowden
On July 1, WikiLeaks revealed that Snowden had applied for political asylum to 19 countries. The countries include Venezuela, Equador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Iceland, Ireland and Italy. A statement attributed to Snowden also contended that the US administration, and specifically Vice President Biden, had unjustly pressured the governments of these countries to refuse his petition for asylum. Brazil, Finland, Germany, India, Poland and Norway have turned down his asylum requests.

Most diplomats refused to comment on the issue, simply saying that it was a difficult issue but a former diplomat simply cautioned that sometimes it is important to make a distinction between a person seeking asylum and a refugee, since these are very commonly confused. Another stated that asylum rules are different when the country the asylum seeker is asking to reside in has an extradition treaty with the country he fled from. 

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