Why Asylum?

We have chosen Asylum as the title of our blog. It is a word with a long history. Its deepest meaning can be detected in the etymology—asylum, from the Greek, άσυλοn (asulon) ‘without the right of seizure.’ In other words, the concept is closely associated with the ideal of protection, and the basic right to be safeguarded from being seized and held captive. In this sense, asylum is conceived as a place of refuge, a haven. It is aligned with the ancient ideal of sanctuary, which was regarded as a sacred place, a retreat—a place of safety from violence.   The right to protection, now enshrined in the Refugee Convention, also involves, as do all rights, an obligation and a duty-bearer, without which the right is meaningless. In modern times the duty-bearer is usually government. But in its most fundamental form it is another citizen who recognizes the needs of the asylum seeker, the perils they face, and who responds with compassion and generosity.

This understanding of asylum, therefore, takes us to the heart of the matter — to the leading question. Asked eye to eye, human to human—not from behind bars, razor wire, locked gates and cyclone fences: ‘What is your story? Why have you undertaken such a perilous journey? What has driven you to leave your beloved homeland and brave the oceans? What has made you risk all in your search for protection?’ Once the story is established, the next question ensues: ‘How can I protect you?’

There is a lot of focus on political asylum in contemporary conversations and understandings. Asylum conjures dramatic images of refugees in flight, escaping arrest or persecution, driven by a sense of urgency. It evokes the knock on the door in the dead of night, and poignant scenarios of refugees congregating at embassies, in fear for their life. There is also the slow-burn persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, for whom—as in the case of the Hazara in Afghanistan, and the Kurdish and Yazidis communities in the Middle East, and so many others—the persecution has endured for many years, even extending to centuries. Peoples who for generations have experienced a permanent underlying sense of vulnerability.

Yet, we have seen that those who have in recent years sought asylum on our shores, have had their sense of vulnerability deepened by years of incarceration in on-shore and off-shore detention centres. Or those who, as in the case of the 30,000 asylum seekers out in the community on various forms of temporary protection, have had their sense of fragility intensified by an interminable uncertainty and anxiety concerning their fate. A state of limbo. A variant of purgatory.

Temporary protection is NOT asylum. As the months and years drag on, it becomes another form of seizure, a denial of the basic right to freedom, and the denial of a firm foundation for a more hopeful future — that precious sense of feeling at home. True asylum.

Our understanding of asylum extends further. It encompasses the needs of contemporary refugees, the latest waves of arrivals on permanent visas, who do not yet feel fully at home—refugee youth for instance, with their sense of alienation, and wider communities with an ongoing sense of uncertainty and fragility as they seek to establish new roots. It includes models of community engagement and harmony, which are so often overlooked. That need to be documented. Researched. Models that can be transformed into policies, programs and practices, and that can transform whole communities for the better.

Being granted asylum implies the possibility of choice. In cases where, according to internationally agreed criteria, an asylum seeker engages our protection obligations, denial of asylum is not an option. But, being granted asylum, even grudgingly, is a first step. The challenges do not cease there.  True asylum comes with a deeper sense of belonging, of being included, of being a part of the new land. A sense of inviolable refuge. Permanent protection.

Asylum. It is a compelling ideal. An oasis. Yet so hard to attain. So cruel when denied. So precious once granted. So healing once permanently established.


Arnold Zable and Harry Minas

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