What is political asylum? Q & A

The World

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, charged with espionage by the US government, is desperately trying to obtain asylum in another country.

More from GlobalPost: Nations reject Snowden's asylum request

GlobalPost asked Ashley Huebner, managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Asylum Project, for a primer on what asylum is and how hard it is to get.

This interview was edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

What is political asylum?

People often call it political asylum, but it’s just asylum nowadays. It started out as being much more politically-based after World War II, but today you can get asylum based on your political opinion, your race, your religion, your nationality or your membership in a particular social group.

The purpose of the benefit is to provide protection to somebody who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality because they have a well-founded fear of persecution by the government or an entity the government can’t or won’t control.

In order to get asylum, what do you typically have to prove?

The first thing you have to prove is you have a well-founded fear, which in the United States means you have to have at least a 10 percent chance of being persecuted if you go back to your country. If you’ve been persecuted in the past, it’s presumed you’re going to be persecuted in the future.

You have to prove you will suffer or have suffered persecution – that’s a legal term. It tends to be any kind of harm, harassment or discrimination that’s risen to a certain level in order to constitute persecution.

Then it has to be on account of political opinion, race, religion, nationality or group membership. So it can’t be general violence in a country. In a political opinion case, it can be your actual political opinion – you’re a human rights activist in a dictatorship – or it can be a political opinion that’s imputed to you – maybe your parents were political activists, or you’re from a particular region that’s known for being rebellious.

Several countries – including Spain, Ireland, Ecuador, Austria and Finland – have said that Snowden's asylum requests can’t be processed because he is not in their country. Is this typical of asylum systems?

Yes. It’s the general rule with asylum and the general difference between asylum and refugee status. Refugees have been determined to meet that definition somewhere outside, and they come in with that status already.

Snowden has applied for asylum in 21 countries. Is it easier to get asylum in some countries versus others?

There are countries, typically in the developing world, that simply don’t accept any kind of refugees or asylum-seekers. In Western countries, they’re all within a certain level of each other. Some have more benefits while you’re waiting for a decision in your case, others don’t. Others may have specific policies, such as maybe they have a good policy for people from certain countries but for other countries they’re more strict, or essentially racist. I wouldn’t say that there’s any country that has an absolutely fantastic asylum system.

What do you think of Snowden’s chances of obtaining asylum?

In the Snowden case, where it becomes tricky is there’s this prosecution versus persecution issue. On the one hand, a government has the right to uphold its laws and punish those who don’t follow the laws. The question can become, ‘Is the law legitimate?’ Someone could still be eligible for asylum because it’s not a law that we would consider the country has the right to have. Or maybe the law is legitimate but the punishment is so severe that it changes from prosecution to persecution.

If he was coming from another country and requesting asylum in the US, I think he’d have a hard time proving his case because of the prosecution versus persecution issue. But maybe some country that wants to thumb its nose at us will grant him some kind of protection.

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