Some fear things could get worse. Ahead of the inauguration, one recurring meme had been that those who oppose Trump should leave the country and head to Canada. While the idea is at least partly tongue-in-cheek, there are plenty who feel that America's new commander in chief has displayed a vindictive streak and that the threat of persecution is around the corner.
Americans, of course, don't typically become refugees. But that doesn't mean that they can't. In fact, some try. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were three requests by an American citizen to be resettled as a refugee through the agency between 2009 and 2011, though it appears that none of the applications were successful.
Those figures only tell a small part of the story. While many refugees who arrive in the United States come through resettlement programs, U.S. citizens hoping to become refugees tend to claim asylum once they have already arrived in a country — that's because, unlike many other nationalities, an American passport makes travel relatively easy, and Americans tend to have the funds to travel.
To get a fuller picture of U.S. asylum seekers, you have to look at the individual statistics on asylum seekers in specific countries. Across the European Union, for example, there were a total of about 150 applications for asylum from U.S. citizens in 2015 (the E.U.'s data is rounded to the nearest 5). Around 60 of those people had tried to claim asylum in Britain, followed by 30 in Sweden and ten in Germany.
According to this data, the number of hopeful U.S. refugees heading to Europe seems to have surged over the past decade or so — there were just 35 Americans who applied for asylum in Europe in 2008 — though it still remains a blip compared with the numbers of refugees coming from countries in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa.
There are some indications that this surge in U.S. asylum seekers could be continuing. In December, Canadian authorities announced that 170 Americans had claimed asylum during the first 11 months of the year at the country's land borders — and that while the number of asylum seekers in November 2015 was just five, it had surged to 28 in November 2016.
Similar bumps have followed other big U.S. elections, but some Canadian experts suggested that the tenor of the 2016 race really was different enough to prompt more Americans to seek refuge. “I don't think it's surprising at all,” University of Ottawa professor and lawyer Jamie Liew told the Canadian Broadcasting Company of the surge, noting that there had been talk of “hate, exclusion, deportation” during the election campaign. “I could see why people would be concerned for their own safety, their own lives, and evaluate whether they could live (there).”
Just because someone seeks asylum doesn't mean it is granted, however. Data from the Canadian Council for Refugees suggests that in 2015, no American was granted refugee status. Americans arriving in Britain may receive slightly better odds: 12 U.S. citizens were granted asylum in Britain in 2015, meaning about 1 in 5 applications were successful.
Technically, to qualify as a refugee, a person has to meet specific parameters set out under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which were later amended under a 1967 Refugee Protocol. In particular, they would have to prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. In addition, they need to show that their own government cannot protect them and they have no right to reside in a third country.
(A side note: It is also possible for Americans to claim political asylum, rather than refugee status, in some countries, though this does not generally carry the agreed upon rights for refugee status. Edward Snowden has temporary political asylum, rather than refugee status, in Russia, for example.)
Fully meeting the requirements for refugee status is pretty difficult — there are even plenty of Syrians, for example, who don't meet the technical definition even though their country is largely a war zone (an informal convention has arose in many nations to accept Syrians as refugees anyway). Even if an American were to argue that they were being persecuted, immigration authorities might say that they were still protected by the Bill of Rights or that they may be able to escape that persecution by moving to another state.
Because of privacy concerns, in most cases where an American has been successful in claiming refugee status the circumstances are not widely known. There have still been some high-profile cases of American refugees, however, though most are unique circumstances.
One of the most famous cases is that of Holly Collins, an American who fled to Holland with her children in 1994. Collins had claimed she and her children had been abused by her ex-husband, the children's father, but a U.S. court had granted the man custody of their children anyway. After years of living in Dutch refugee camps, Collins was eventually granted asylum in 1997, but she faced charges of kidnapping in the United States and an FBI warrant for her arrest. Eventually, all charges but one “contempt of court” charge were dropped and the family returned to the United States in 2008.
The same year of Collins's return, Costa Rica granted another American woman refugee status after allegations that she claimed she had suffered domestic abuse — a move criticized by the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, who say the woman is wanted for child abduction.
Is a further wave of American refugees likely? Even before Trump was elected, immigration lawyers like Raha Jorjani, also a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law, had argued that black Americans had a reasonable argument for refugee status abroad because of their mistreatment at the hands of the United States. So far, most foreign courts don't seem to agree: Kyle Lydell Canty, a black American who claimed he feared he could be killed by U.S. police because of his race, had his application for refugee status in Canada denied last year.
A bigger question may be whether the United States remains as open to foreign refugees as it has always been. Trump has shown himself to be extremely skeptical of America's refugee relocation program, dubbing the problem of Syrian refugees in particular not “only a matter of terrorism, but also a matter of quality of life.”
But again, things can change — and Americans can find themselves seeking asylum, too. As Donna Covey, then the chief executive of Britain's Refugee Council, told the Guardian in 2010: “No country is safe for every person all of the time.”
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