The history of refugee and asylum law, in my opinion, may be divided into two major periods: (a) the pre-modern era before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and (b) the modern era starting with that 1948 adoption. There are four major points from this earlier period that have impressed me.
First, there have been instances when individual states granted protection or asylum to people of another state, but the granting of such protection was always within the discretion or grace of the potential protecting state. Whether or not this was done was influenced by a multitude of circumstances. Correspondingly the individual fleeing his or her own country had no legal right to claim protection from another state. An interesting example of this type of asylum happened in 615 CE, when Mohammad requested his cousin and other followers to leave Mecca and seek refuge in Abyssinia or Ethiopia to escape persecution by Mecca’s leading tribe. This is known as the First Hijra (Migration) of Muslims. At the time, the King of Abyssinia was a Christian and known for his justice and respect for human beings. Responding to a letter from Mohammad, the King said he understood that Mohammad respected Jesus and, therefore, granted asylum to the Muslims.
Second, as we have just seen, religious belief sometimes has motivated a government to grant asylum in this earlier period. In addition, religious bodies and individuals often call upon their members and fellow believers to be hospitable to outsiders such as those fleeing persecution. In Judaism and Christianity, for example, there are numerous Biblical texts to this effect. In the Hebrew Bible, the people are told, “Do no mistreat an alien or oppress him for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 222:21.) Similarly, “You are to have the same law for the alien and for the native born.” (Leviticus 24:22.) In the New Testament, Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was, said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39.) Similarly Arabic traditions and customs have served as a solid foundation for protecting human beings and preserving their dignity. These include “istijara” (plea for protection), “ijara” (granting protection) and “iwaa” (sheltering). The Islamic Shari’a further consolidated the humanitarian principles of brotherhood, equality and tolerance among human beings. Relieving suffering and assisting, sheltering, and granting safety to the needy, even enemies, are an integral part of Islamic Shari’a. In fact, Islamic Shari’a addressed the issue of asylum explicitly and in detail, and guaranteed safety, dignity and care for the “musta’men” (asylum-seeker). Moreover, the return, or refoulement, of the “musta’men” was prohibited by virtue of Shari’a.
Third, after World War I, the Covenant of the League of Nations did not have any explicit provision regarding refugees. The closest it came was its Article 25, which states, “The Members of the League agree to encourage and promote the establishment and co-operation of duly authorised [sic] voluntary national Red Cross organisations [sic] having as purposes the improvement of health, the prevention of disease and the mitigation of suffering throughout the world.” There also were various treaties regarding refugees in the 1920s and 1930s, but they did not grant legal rights to asylum. Fourth, German persecution of the Jews in the 1930s showed the weaknesses of this discretionary approach to asylum. In 1933 the Nazis took over control of the German government and fired Jews from the civil service and sponsored boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses. Germany also started an official encouragement of German Jewish emigration, and in September 1935 Germany’s Nuremberg Laws cancelled German citizenship for Jews. By the end of 1937 450,000 German Jews had left the country. In March of 1938 German annexed Austria (das Anschluss) and thereby brought the 200,000 Austrian Jews under German laws, including the Nuremberg Laws.
Several days later U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to call an international conference to facilitate the emigration of Jews from Germany and Austria and to establish an international organization to work towards an overall solution to this problem. That July the conference was held in Evian, France. Thirty-two countries attended and expressed sympathy for the refugees. With one exception, however, no country agreed to take additional Jewish refugees. The exception was the Dominican Republic, and it did so because its dictator, Trujillo, wanted more white people in his country. The Conference also created the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees to “approach the governments of the countries of refuge with a view to developing opportunities for permanent settlement.” It also was to seek German cooperation in establishing “conditions of orderly emigration.” This Committee, however, never received the necessary authority or support from its members and, therefore, failed to accomplish anything. After the conference, Hitler said, “It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them . . . .” Moreover, the failure of the Conference to do anything about the German Jews was seen as an encouragement for Germany’s increasing persecution of the Jews, including Kristallnachtin October 1938 and the Holocaust itself through the end of World War II in 1945.