All you need to know about political asylum

Amos Yee returned to the media forefront in late December last year when he was reported to have sought political asylum in the United States of America (“US”). This article sets out to explain what political asylum is and its legal consequences.

What is Political Asylum?

A person can qualify for asylum, or political asylum, if he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Once a person’s application for political asylum has been approved, he will become a refugee, and can expect to gain citizenship (subject to certain requirements), live and work in that country.

The genesis of political asylum is encapsulated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

The United Nations Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”) sets out the direction of international refugee protection today, providing guidance to national legislation concerning political asylum.

Who is Not Eligible for Political Asylum?

Under Article 1F of the Refugee Convention, a person falling under any of the considerations below will be barred from seeking asylum if the person has:

  • committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity;
  • committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge; and/or
  • is guilty of facts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

A dictator who has committed genocide against his own people or a serial killer are clearly some categories of persons that would be excluded from seeking political asylum.

How Do Singaporeans Apply For Political Asylum Overseas?

The process of applying for political asylum differs based on the country one is applying to. For Amos Yee’s application to the US, he took the following steps:

Step 1: Enter the country that you are seeking asylum from

In order to apply for asylum, Amos Yee had to be physically present in the US. In his case, he landed in Chicago on 16 December 2016 on a tourist visa. He then told immigration officers that he wished to apply for asylum.

Step 2: Submit his written application

Amos Yee filed form I-589 with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service as his official submission for asylum. This form would have contained details of his personal information, as well as his reasons for seeking asylum.

Step 3: Attend interview by Asylum Officer

Once the form was properly filed and reviewed, Amos Yee would have been interviewed by an asylum officer. Amos Yee’s interview would likely have comprised questions pertaining to his identity, background and his reasons for application. The officer would expect an asylum seeker to deliver nothing but the truth, and would then have to make a decision as to whether the application should be granted, denied or referred to the immigration court. Yee’s application in this case was referred to the immigration court.

These are the general stages an asylum-seeking applicant would go through in the application process.

Where Does This Take Amos Yee Then?

Amos Yee remains detained in the US until his hearing in March. According to his lawyer, the hearing will be over several hours and involve dispositions from witnesses. The ultimate decision of whether he will be granted political asylum is likely to be made at this stage.

Asylum Seeking in other Countries

While the above outlines the steps to seek asylum, different countries, such as the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland, have varying procedures for applying for political asylum. For instance, the US requires the asylum seeker to file for asylum within a year of the person’s entry to US. In the United Kingdom (“UK”) however, the asylum seeker must apply for asylum as soon as he enters the UK.

Hence, it is always helpful to refer to the respective countries’ official sources to gain a better understanding of the process.

Legal Consequences Of Applying For Political Asylum

Once an asylum seeker has been granted asylum, he becomes a “refugee”. Since political asylum is grounded in international law, countries who are part of the treaty accepting asylum seekers (“Signatory States”) have to adhere to the provisions as set out in the Refugee Convention.

A Singaporean who chooses to seek asylum in a foreign country and succeeds in doing so gives up all his rights in his home country, and may never be allowed to return again. He will in turn abide by the laws in the Signatory State.

Additionally, the Signatory State is also bound by certain principles promulgated by the the Refugee Conventions. For example:

  • Refugees have to abide to the laws of the country in which he finds himself in (Article 2)
  • Refugees have free access to the courts and enjoy the same treatment as that of a citizen (Article 16)
  • Refugee’s personal status and rights relating to marriage should be respected by the Signatory State (Article 12)
  • A refugee’s artistic rights and industrial property (such as inventions, trademarks and designs) shall be granted the same treatment as to a citizen (Article 14)
  • Refugees will be treated like citizens with respect to elementary education. Apart from that, with regards to access to higher education, scholarships and recognition of foreign education certificates, they will be considered on grounds no less favourable as non-citizens (Article 22)

Though this article attempts to simplify and outline what one can expect when seeking political asylum, the complex nature of asylum laws in the various countries means that seeking political asylum is a much more complex and challenging endeavour. One ought to think through his decision to seek political asylum and seek competent advice before making such a life-changing decision.