Towards a New Definition of “Refugee”

by Jason Dzubow on August 11, 2014

in Asylees and Refugees, International, Legal

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There are, in effect, two definitions of “refugee.” There is the legal definition from the 1951 Refugee Convention (codified in U.S. law at INA § 101(a)(42)), and then there is the lay person’s definition.

The legal definition of refugee includes:

any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality… and who is unable or unwilling to return to… that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

The lay person’s definition is much broader and includes basically anyone who has been forced to flee from their home due to war or an environmental or man-made disaster. Many people who have been displaced by conflict or catastrophe are refugees under the lay definition, but not under the legal definition.

Refugees or "refugees"?

Refugees or “refugees”?

The mass movement of people–especially young people–escaping violence and poverty in Central America has gotten me thinking about these definitions. As our country struggles to respond to the influx, I wonder whether we need a new definition of “refugee.”

Under current U.S. law, if a person is physically present in the country and meets the legal definition of refugee, he will receive asylum. This is quite a nice benefit to receive. People who get asylum are able to remain here permanently. They can eventually become residents and later citizens. They can travel, work, and attend school. They can sponsor certain family members to join them in the United States. They are sometimes eligible for government assistance. These generous benefits are a “pull” factor because they encourage refugees to seek asylum here (as opposed to staying put or seeking asylum somewhere else). The benefits also create an incentive for people to file fraudulent asylum claims.  

To guard against fraud, we have created an elaborate bureaucracy to evaluate the veracity of asylum claims. We have Asylum Officers, Immigration Judges, the Board of Immigration Appeals, the various DHS Chief Counsels’ offices (basically, the prosecutors in Immigration Court), the Forensic Document Lab, and an extensive system of security background checks. All this costs money and takes time. But I can imagine an alternative to this system.

We could simply categorize as a “refugee” anyone who says that they are afraid to return home. In other words, if someone requests asylum in the United States, they would automatically be granted asylum. This sounds like a stupid plan, you say? Everyone and their brother would seek asylum here, including terrorists and criminals. Worse, it would put asylum lawyers out of business. Maybe so, but indulge me for a moment.

There are some obvious benefits to this idea. For one thing, it would completely eliminate the bureaucracy associated with adjudicating asylum applications. Second, we would never mistakenly return a legitimate refugee to her country. Third, people who do not meet the legal definition of refugee, but who fear return for some other reason, could find refuge in the U.S.

There are also some obvious drawbacks. First, if everyone who asked for asylum got it, very likely the number of asylum seekers would increase. Second, terrorists and criminals might exploit the asylum system to enter the United States. Third, we would lose the ability to control who and how many people come to our country.

But what if we could reduce the drawbacks and keep the benefits?

The main question is how to deal with the likely increased demand under this new system? The easiest way to reduce the “pull” of asylum would be to reduce the benefits of asylum. Basic economic theory suggests that if it is easier to obtain asylum, more people will come here, but if the benefits are reduced, less people will come here. So in order to offset the increased number of asylum seekers caused by reducing the barriers to asylum, we would need a corresponding reduction in benefits. How much of a reduction will provide this balance, I don’t know. But let’s say we reduce the benefits to the bare minimum: People who come here for asylum will be placed in a refugee camp indefinitely, they will receive only the supplies they need to survive, and they can leave only to return to their home country or to resettle in a third country. This is more-or-less the situation for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in places like Jordan and Turkey. My guess is that if this regime were strictly enforced, the overall effect would be to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S. In other words, the ease of obtaining asylum would be more than offset by the lack of benefits. If this is correct, it means we could offer something more than the bare minimum benefits without causing a major increase in the number of people seeking asylum here. The difficult question is how to find the equilibrium.

Another important drawback to my system is that it might attract criminals and terrorists. Of course if these people were confined to refugee camps, their ability to harm us would be quite limited.

Finally, my system might cause us to lose control of our border, since anyone claiming asylum would get it. But again, if the asylum seekers were confined to camps, and then resettled by the UN to third countries or to the United States, we might actually end up with a better controlled border since we could admit as many or as few people for resettlement as we choose.

Depending on the number of people arriving at our borders, it may be impossible to offer them the full range of benefits and due process protections that we have previously given to asylum seekers. But I don’t think we’re there yet–although there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S., the numbers are still nothing close to what countries like Jordan and Turkey have been experiencing. However, if we continue seeing large numbers of people arriving in the U.S. to seek asylum, we may need to start considering alternatives to our current system.

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