Karl Simlinger, until very recently the mayor of Gföhl, a small town in Austria, told a city council meeting this week that journalists who reported on asylum seekers should be hanged.
Expressing his fury that asylum applicants would be lodged in a complex in the town, Simlinger bafflingly said:
I don't give a shit about asylum seekers, but the journalists are to be blamed. They should be hanged; they are like the Jews. [Jerusalem Post]
Unsurprisingly, given his open display of xenophobia and anti-semitism, mixed in with some terrible contempt for freedom of the press, Simlinger has resigned from his job as mayor.
This bizarre tale makes me wonder just where Simlinger's brand of hatred comes from. Why does the topic of asylum seekers provoke such visceral animosity? Isn't asylum a critically important thing?
First off, let's define who these asylum seekers are. Mostly, they are refugees fleeing countries in turmoil due to war, genocide, or political, religious, or social persecution. According to the United Nations, there are more than 14 million refugees who have left their countries to escape from persecution, armed conflict, or violence.
The modern right to asylum was introduced by the UN's 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It was designed to prevent countries turning away refugees who had come from a country where they were endangered, as occurred on multiple occasions during the Holocaust.
The vast majority of refugees stay in their region. Eighty percent of the world's refugees are hosted by developing countries. Pakistan hosts the highest number of refugees at 1.7 million. Western countries receive comparatively few asylum application per year. America received 70,400 applications for asylum in 2012, the most in the world. Second was Germany, which received 64,500 applications, followed by South Africa with 61,500 and France with 55,100.
The majority of asylum seekers' claims are found to be genuine. In Australia — a country that has been particularly tough on asylum seekers, imprisoning them in detention centers — over 90 percent of asylum seekers arriving by boat were found to have genuine claims.
Taxpayers may resent the idea of paying for services and infrastructure for asylum seekers and refugees. But the amounts of money spent are actually very small. The United States spends just over $1 billion a year on refugee resettlement. That's just over 0.03 percent of the federal budget.
It is really, really important that people who are persecuted can escape their persecutors. Genocide can happen almost anywhere, even in politically and socially advanced countries. The fact that people with such hateful and retrograde views can rise to positions of authority in wealthy, developed countries like Austria illustrates the importance of this. Imagine if Simlinger had gained national power. Would he persecute journalists? Religious and ethnic minorities?
Having international conventions that support the right of persecuted or endangered peoples to seek asylum makes the world a safer place for everyone. Yes, protecting asylum seekers costs money. But that is a price worth paying to live in a world that protects the rights of the individual, values freedom, and tries to give everyone a fair shot at life.