What is Asylum?

Walking over WorldThe practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization. References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians.

Over three thousand years later, protecting refugees was made the core mandate of the UN refugee agency, which was set up to look after refugees, specifically those waiting to return home at the end of World War II.

The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing UNHCR spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” (1)

A refugee is someone who has been recognized as having a well-founded fear of persecution and has special rights and protections in international law.

An asylum seeker is someone who is currently asking to be recognized as having a well-founded fear of persecution, and asking for protection from a state government. They do not yet have any rights or protections in international law.

LGBT Asylum in the U.S.

USA Flag RainbowSince 1994 the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed non-U.S. citizens who have been persecuted elsewhere because of their sexual orientation, to seek asylum in the U.S. These applications are not always successful, and it can be difficult to win cases. Over the last ten years, LGBT rights supporters have pushed for better training of Immigration Officers and Judges, so that LGBT people can have fair and non-judgemental hearings.

Click here to open an infographic explaining the asylum application process.

If granted political asylum, individuals have the right to remain in the U.S. and the right to “family reunification,” which is for their spouse and children to join them in the U.S. Eventually, they have the right to apply for U.S. citizenship. (2)

There are some key differences between asylum seekers and refugess, in terms of legal rights and ability to access human services in the U.S. This useful document explains those differences.

Asylum Seekers’ Experiences in the U.S.

Asylum seekers are often vulnerable. Most arrive in the U.S. without any protected legal status. Many have experienced traumatizing persecution, and can experience depression and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. Many have been told that their same-gender love or transgender identity is immoral, illegal and/ or sinful.

Asylum seekers cannot legally work in the U.S. for six – eighteen months during their legal process. Many have no other means to support themselves, and are not eligible for most welfare or social support services. While pursuing asylum, they may struggle to meet basic needs, such as housing, food, clothing, transportation, and services including healthcare and psychological care.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to a free attorney from the government if they cannot afford one. If they are low-income, they might have to navigate a foreign legal system without a lawyer. This has a serious effect on the outcome of their case. Individuals are much less likely to succeed in their legal cases without legal representation. (3)

The National Center for Lesbian Rights published this useful report on “Challenges to Lesbian Asylum Claims” in 2007. Some of the factual information is outdated, but on the whole it highlights social and legal barriers for LB women asylum seekers in particular.

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