Safe Haven: International Norms, Strategic Interests, and U.S. Refugee Policy (Working Paper #40)

Idean Salehyan, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies

Introduction: There are over 14 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world today (Figure 1, U.S. Committee for Refugees 2000). These are people who have crossed national boundaries – not in search of economic opportunities – but because they fear political persecution or violence in their countries of origin. Recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Colombia, among others, have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in search of safe haven elsewhere (table 1). Receiving countries, for their part, face substantial burdens when large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers turn up at their borders. Most refugee flows are between developing countries in which states facing their own political and economic hardships must provide for unexpected migrants. In more industrialized countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, political asylum has become an issue of intense debate as the number of asylum seekers rose sharply during the 1990’s (Keely and Russell 1994).

This paper seeks to understand why states admit refugees and asylum seekers and why they fund international refugee aid agencies. What are the primary reasons that states engage in refugee protection efforts? While some researchers have argued that the influence of human rights and humanitarian norms have greatly impacted governmental decision making, I will argue that refugee policies have more to do with material and strategic interests than global norms.

Working Paper #40»