Asylum seeking: Seeing the positive

Asylum seeking is not new, and is in principle governed by well established and ratified international laws and principles. People have been fleeing persecutions of one kind or another for centuries and the world has seen fit to codify how to respond to this. Legislation apparently has not made it any easier.  In a recent article from Canada, Anabelle Nicoud (La Presse, February 6th 2012 has highlighted some of the problems asylum seekers arriving in Canada are encountering, and what in turn, the cost of these problems are to the state.  She refers specifically to the arrival in August 2011 of 492 Sri Lankans who were handcuffed on arrival and then incarcerated for about 3 ½ months during which time their cases were estimated at a cost to the state of 22 million Canadian dollars.

In Switzerland, 2012 has started out with highly publicized concerns about the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in the country (a 45% increase since 2010) and the unwillingness and/or inability of some local authorities to accommodate them. Last week, 400 residents of Pully, a small relatively well-to-do town close to Lausanne, met to protest the idea of opening an underground civil protection shelter to hold 50 asylum seekers.  Civil defense facilities have been increasingly dedicated to housing asylum seekers in Switzerland, and most recently a psychiatric institution has been partially given over to the task as well.

In 2011 the 27 EU countries, with a total population of over 500 million people, received some 66,000 asylum seekers applications. Insignificant as this number may seem, asylum seekers have nevertheless become a major political, social and economic challenge in the EU as elsewhere. Why this should be so is not clear. Most EU countries (as well as Canada) receiving asylum seekers are ageing quickly and in need of new human resources. Theoretically these countries would benefit from employing young able bodied people who clearly want to be socially and economically integrated. Doing so would also help to cut the cost of the prolonged administrative procedures that prevent asylum seekers from quickly inserting themselves, working, paying taxes and contributing socially.

Employing asylum seekers would also help to raise self-esteem. Fleeing from persecution is never easy and most asylum seekers suffer from trauma and a perceived sense of powerlessness and loss of control.  Typically homesick, anxious and depressed because of what they have gone through and the people they have left behind, asylum seekers are fragile.  Fear of not being able to meet the often complex and unclear legal/administrative requirements of the countries they arrive in is erosive of both their physical and psychological health, which is again a cost to the state.  In the EU where of the 55,000 decisions taken on asylum seekers in the first quarter of 2011, only 1 in 4 were positive, and the administrative process can take years.

Much could be gained by if governments would recognize the potentially positive impact of quickly integrating asylum seekers in the community. The global number of asylum seekers is small and the world has already defined their rights.  People fleeing persecution and threats to their lives deserve better, and we should never lose sight of the fact that although some people are clearly more at risk than others, we are ultimately all at risk if becoming asylum seekers.

by Manuel Carballo

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