Millions of people are displaced each year by wars and violence. Thousands leave their countries, seeking refugee elsewhere. Those who come to a country asking for protection become called asylum seekers.
US Asylee 1: I'm from Liberia, West Africa. My story started from back in uh- 1996. I was arrested and put in prison, my wife and myself, and we went through some horrible things in prison. Not too pleasant to talk about, but we had to go through it.
This man left Liberia in 2005 and applied for asylum in the United States. Like all the asylees I spoke to, he asked to remain anonymous to protect family members he left back home. He received asylum in early 2006.
US Asylee 1: It was like uh- you see someone being free from execution? Yeah that's the way I felt. I was free from execution. I was free from going to the gallows.
The United States is among the 146 signers of the United Nations' "Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees"—known as the Geneva Convention. In 2005, the US and France were the top two countries in the world accepting asylum seekers—together welcoming almost 90 thousand people.
French Asylee: I'm from Nigeria. I live in Abuja. I left because of a political problem in relation to uh- a governor in Aketi state
This man was smuggled to Europe on a ship…
French Asylee: I would have decided to stay in part of Africa, in Ghana or elsewhere, but I knew I would still be traced. So I tried to go farther, because Nigerians don't have much influence in intimidating in France, so that is why I decided to come here
The French and US asylum systems work in pretty much the same way: You arrive and present your case to someone who has been trained in asylum law, who decides if you are a refugee, based on the definition in the Geneva convention. A person is a refugee if he or she has a well founded fear of persecution, because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. This last category has been applied to women fleeing domestic violence, and gays facing homophobic aggression. The refugee convention was originally conceived right after World War II to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people displaced in Europe by the war.
Zolberg: Under the new uh- UN protocol, if you could prove that you are a refugee.. that you are in danger in staying where you are, then uh, any member of the UN has to take you in.
Aristide Zolberg is a professor of Political Science at the New School in New York City. In 1967, the Refugee Convention was expanded to become a worldwide protocol. Nothing dictates how individual states are to implement the guidelines, and Dr. Zolberg explains that not everyone does it the same way:
Zolberg: Many of the countries uh, which are supposed to take in refugees either don't abide by the convention, or don't have the means to- to- to really protect these refugees. Or to support them economically. And the UN has- does not have provisions to subsidize this. Many poor countries are under obligation to take in refugees, but resent the fact that they have to do this at their own expense.
But both France and the United States have long histories of accepting refugees. An asylum seeker presents his or her case to an officer or judge, who first has to determine whether or not the claim is credible. Frederic Thiberghien is on the board of France Terre d'Asile, an asylum advocacy organization in Paris. He says that proving who you are- and that your claim is valid- is tricky:
Thiberghien: To bring the proof is a very difficult task, because people who torture don't deliver certificates of torture, so that's in the end, your own appreciation when you are an officer, to listen to a case. You examine, you know some information of the country of origin, and it's what we call in French "intime conviction", what elements you think true.
Asylum office: Hi may I have your notice? Thank you . May I see some ID please?
If you are granted asylum in the US, you'd hear something like this:
Asylum office: All right. Congratulations, you've been granted asylum by the United States…
In both France and the US, asylees are get work authorization, and can bring their families.
Asylum office: Now what we're going to do, today we're going to set up the machine and give you your work authorization [fades under]
If a claim is denied, an asylum seeker can appeal—but may ultimately be sent back. While there are variations in the procedures between the two countries, the biggest difference seems to be attitudes towards asylum as a concept, which get expressed in policy decisions
In the United States, since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the government is particularly concerned with security. Bill Strassberger is a spokesman for the agency that administers asylum in the US:
Strassberger: Throughout the immigration process there is a heightened concern for terrorism. These are perceived weaknesses of the system because we're an open society. We have to be careful. We have to be concerned.
While the US is worried about terrorists, Europe has a tendency to see asylum seekers as illegal immigrants:
Thiberghien: France and Europe have mixed asylum matters with immigration,
Frederic Thiberghien explains that asylum is a political right, and so it should be separated from immigration:
Thiberghien: Because the motives of the people are not the same at all. So if you mix the two you have the real concern of limiting the number of asylum
France's asylum laws are of course, wrapped up with Europe. The EU has created a minimal framework for asylum, with the goal of having a common policy by 2010. This hasn't been easy. Matthieu Tardis is in charge of European Affairs at France Terre d'Asile:
Tardis: Member states they do not agree on many things. Like the social rights of asylum seekers, the freedom of circulation within the member states, the right to appeal. So far they only adopted minimal standards, which are very low, in my opinion.
Frederic Thiberghien agrees that the European standards are lower than France's, though he concedes that the regulations have improved conditions in other countries:
Thiberghien: Spain and Italy had no asylum law until very recently. So uh- Europe brought progress on that respect- and it's the same for the eastern part of Europe and so in some countries it has increased the level, and in others it has decreased. And in our country very clearly the balance is negative
In 2005, France welcomed almost 50 thousand asylum seekers, and the US 40 thousand, though these numbers have been dropping steadily—all over the world. In Europe, the end of the war in the Balkans put a stop to thousands of refugees streaming into Germany and the rest of western Europe. Also, both the US and Europe are concerned about their borders. Here's Matthieu Tardis again:
Tardis: It's more and more difficult for a refugee to get into the EU territory. So there are less asylum seekers in Europe. And so there's less refugee status.
The challenge today is to keep a balance between national interests and humanitarian and international obligations.
Tardis: As the European we have the obligation to give protection. We all ratify the Geneva convention. So it's an obligation for us.
US Asylee 2: An African proverb says if you're neighbor's house is on fire, help him.
This Liberian man was granted asylum in the United States in 2003:
US Asylee 2: As much as we empathize what America has been through- I just went down to ground zero. It was a moving event for me. But we must realize that though there is no justification for such atrocities, the lesson learned is that until all the world is secure, no nation will be secure. This is one global village.
This piece aired on December 26, 2006, on Radio France International
Producer: Sarah Elzas (with material recorded with Olivia Bueno)
Recorded in New York, NY, Washington, DC, and Paris, France