The End of Asylum

A Pillar of the Liberal Order Is Collapsing—but Does Anyone Care?

A boat full of lifejackets on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 2015 Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

A small tent city is taking shape in Tapachula, on the Mexican-Guatemalan border, and its inhabitants are living proof of the systematic erosion of one of the foundational principles of the post–World War II international order. The residents are primarily refugees and migrants from African countries who fled political persecution, social upheaval, and economic uncertainty, taking one of the longest and most perilous migration routes in the world in the hope of reaching the United States. 

Until recently, most would have been granted a 21-day grace period to either normalize their residency status in Mexico or continue on to the U.S. border. But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that the administration of President Donald Trump can deny asylum to anyone who has crossed a third country en route to the U.S. border, Mexico has started denying Africans free passage through its territory. And so the migrants arriving in Tapachula have nowhere to go. They are trapped between hard-line U.S. asylum policies, Mexico’s acquiescence to those policies, and a growing global backlash against anyone seeking asylum.

The United States is far from the only country to slam its gates on those fleeing crumbling social, political, and economic systems. Around the world, rich and poor countries alike are pulling up their drawbridges, slashing the number of refugees they are willing to accept, and denying asylum to those who might have been admitted in the past. Europe, for instance, sank to a new nadir in the summer of 2019 by criminalizing rescue in the Mediterranean, allowing preventable deaths at sea, and forcibly returning vulnerable people to torture and indefinite detention in Libya.

In Africa, Asia, and South America, the mood is much the same. Kenya is building a wall along its border with Somalia and sending thousands of Somali refugees back into a war zone. Bangladesh plans to repatriate thousands of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar with the help of the UN Refugee Agency, despite the fact

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