A place safe from persecution; usually a country which offers protection to a victim of torture or oppression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 14, states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’, and the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951) reiterates the duties of states to uphold the rights and benefits of people displaced from their own country. However, enforcement of these commitments has been left to individual countries, and considerations of practical and political constraints have meant that the rights of those seeking political asylum have not always been upheld. It is often difficult for victims of persecution to prove the circumstances in which they suffered, and for officials to distinguish between those displaced for political reasons and those who wish to migrate for economic reasons. Hence the treatment of those seeking political asylum has become tied up with wider debates over immigration policy.
From the mid‐1990s, the politics of asylum seekers moved sharply up the political agenda in Western Europe, because many more asylum seekers tried to enter, especially from the war‐torn Balkans and Afghanistan. They presented an opportunity for politicians of the right, as witnessed by the success of the French National Front leader Jean‐Marie Le Pen, in reaching the run‐off round of the 2002 presidential election. They presented a difficulty for politicians of the left, who had to sound ‘tough’ on asylum while actually having to deal with the intractable problem.