‘Asylum’, at its most basic, refers to a place of safety where a person can find protection and shelter. The term emerged from the Greek word asulos which can broken down into two parts: ‘-a’ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-sulon’ meaning roughly ‘the right to arrest or seize someone’. Asylum can therefore be understood as protection from harm but especially from acts that interfere with and restrict a person’s freedoms. The word has often been used in a broad sense and is commonly understood to be an actual place where an individual feels secure (we can think of churches where people have sought sanctuary throughout history or state embassies where people ask for diplomatic protection). When we use the word ‘asylum’ in connection to refugees, however, we are not necessarily talking about asylum as a physical space that could be found on a map (a country, a city, a building) where refugees can find safety away from violence and persecution. What we are really referring to is a legal space which cannot be pin-pointed geographically but where individuals are given certain rights and protections by virtue of being granted the international legal status of a ‘refugee’. Of course, this legal status is given to the individual once they have left their country of origin so is in some sense connected to movement through geographical space but the source of their newfound protection is as much in their new legal status as it is in their physical distance from persecution. Surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary did not formally recognise the ‘legal status’ meaning of asylum until 2001 when the entry was edited to recognise asylum as the right to seek political refuge in a nation other than one’s own, ‘usually defined or restricted in law by the nation concerned’.
Select Readings and Resources:
Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘asylum’: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/12340?rskey=m8xIhD&result=1#eid.
The legal definition of ‘refugee’: Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (adopted 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954) 189 UNTS 137, article1(A)2 ‘Definition of the Term “Refugee”, http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.
A history of the practice of asylum: https://www.asyluminsight.com/history-of-asylum#.X4mDw9BKg2w.