At the dawn of Western civilization, the greatest Athenian dramatists extolled their city’s compassion for those who sought protection from pursuers, human or divine. In Aischylos’s Erinyes, Orestes, pursued by the Avenging Furies, finds absolution in an Athenian court chaired by Athena herself. In Sophokles’s Oidipous at Kolonos, Oidipous, wandering blind in self-exile across Greece, is assumed into the heavens after being granted sanctuary in an Athenian grove. In Euripides’s Herakleidai, the king of Athens risks war with Argos to provide political asylum to the children of Herakles, fatherless and with a death penalty hanging over them.
None of these asylum-seekers is blameless. Orestes has killed his mother; Oidipous has killed his father; the Herakleidai by their very existence threaten the royal line of Eurystheus, king of Argos. Yet all were somehow manipulated into their predicament by the gods or by fate: all have suffered for it, all are exiled from their homeland, and all are unwelcome anywhere else in Greece.
The Athenian audience was flattered to be told that in all Hellas, it was their city that combined strength with generosity. As the children of Herakles cling to the altar of Zeus in Marathon, Euripides puts the following words into the mouth of Demophon, son of Theseus and king of Athens (in David Kovacs’s translation): “If I am to allow this altar to be robbed by a foreigner, it will be thought that it is no free land I govern but that I have betrayed suppliants for fear of the Argives. And that is nearly enough to make me hang myself.”
The word “asylum,” though a modern coinage in English, derives from the Greek άσυλον, meaning “unviolated.” The word itself suggests that protecting the weak from the strong who mean them harm is not only a moral duty of the righteous but forms an integral part of our sense of justice and is a pillar of the law, which replaces brute force in civilized society.
The notion of justice as mercy or protection was relatively new compared to the notion of justice as punishment, as a pair of temples at Rhamnous in northeast Attica suggests—the temple to Nemesis, or retribution, is thought to be older than its neighbor, the temple to Themis, or Rule of Law. But thanks to the Athenian tragedians, the strength and will to provide sanctuary to the pursued, and even to forgive them for terrible deeds, have, through the church and the law, formed an inseparable part of our Western ideal of civilization.
Our era’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session in December 1948, crystallizes the concept of asylum within a single sentence: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The framers of the Geneva Convention regarding the Status of Refugees, initially signed by 26 countries in 1951 but by 145 countries today, defined a refugee deserving asylum as someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights fully enshrines these rights.
Today the world is in a refugee crisis, and demand for asylum has never been higher. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over seventy million people displaced from their homes by war, persecution, poverty, and environmental degradation. About one third of those are displaced outside the borders of their country, making them refugees. It is the greatest number ever recorded.
These numbers frighten voters and lawmakers in the developed world and are putting faith in fifth century BC Athenian values to the test. Can we afford to be as brave as King Demophon, or as generous? After all, Demophon made a political decision to protect the children of a famous Greek hero, and Athens’s political independence into the bargain. He was not asked to deal with a constant flow of people, nor to integrate refugees from different languages, religions, and cultures.