This piece was originally published by [wherever] magazine, an out of place journal of travel literature, travel culture, and travel politics. I will periodically be blogging for the new magazine, which seems like a very cool publication (probably too cool for the likes of me, but for now, I'm still in).

I wrote this piece because I am contacted pretty regularly by U.S. citizens who are seeking asylum abroad, or who are thinking about it. Some of these asylum seekers are not so legitimate in my estimation--criminals who hope to avoid the consequences of their crimes. Others represent sad situations that involve people who have been frustrated by their inability to receive help from the government. Victims of domestic abuse are one example in this category. Also, there are those who are engaged in political activity (or what they consider political activity) that could result in criminal penalties here. Edward Snowden falls into this category. So do certain cannabis activists and others in favor of drug legalization (people who consider drug use a political act).

Some people need to flee the U.S.; others just need to leave already.

OK, without further ado, the original piece is here (where you can also check out some interesting articles and photos), and a slightly shortened version is below:

Let’s say you’ve decided to flee the United State of America. You’re not some high-profile asylum seeker like Edward Snowden, who can count on help from a rival government (Russia). Instead, you’re just an ordinary asylum seeker, who will have to demonstrate that you qualify for protection under international law. How would you go about it?

To qualify for asylum, you need to demonstrate that you are a “refugee” under international law. According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a “refugee” is “any person who, owing to a 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The first thing you need to do in order to qualify for asylum is to leave the United States.

While a Julian Assange might get away with living in a friendly embassy (Ecuador in his case), you’re probably no Julian Assange. Most people who ask for refuge inside an embassy will be summarily evicted. So don’t think you can simply waltz into the nearest consulate of your choice, tell them you need assistance, and that they will provide you with a bed and three squares. It just doesn’t work that way. So you’ll first need to get out of the U.S.

Assuming you make it safely to your new country, you will need to show that you were persecuted in the past or that you have a well-founded fear of future persecution. “Persecution” has been defined as “an extreme concept, marked by the infliction of suffering or harm… in a way regarded as offensive.” So for example, if you’re a cannabis activist who faces jail time for smoking pot, you likely would not qualify for asylum because this punishment is not severe enough to constitute “persecution.”

Even if you have been persecuted, that might not be enough to win your asylum case—the persecution has to be on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. If you fear harm because you revealed government secrets, a la Edward Snowden, that might not be considered one of the protected grounds, and so you would be out of luck (though perhaps you could argue that your “whistleblowing” was a form of political activity and thus gain protection). Also, if you fear persecution from criminal gangs, or you face domestic violence, or you will be harmed because of your sexual orientation, you may or may not qualify for asylum—it depends on the law of the country where you are requesting protection. For this reason, you would be well served by doing some research about the country where you plan to seek protection before you make the trip.

So how do you actually make the claim for asylum once you reach your destination country? In many countries (including most countries you’d actually want to go to), there is a form to complete where you provide information about yourself and your claim. You also need to submit evidence—identity documents like your passport, and school and work records, evidence of harm such as medical records and police reports, letters from people attesting to your problems. Then you will be interviewed about your application. Small mistakes on the form or during the interview—a wrong date for example—might cause the adjudicator to conclude that you are not credible, and that your claim is false. Also, seeking asylum from a powerful and influential country like the U.S., a country that generally respects human rights, will be an uphill battle. And remember, there is a good chance you will be doing all of this in a language you don’t understand, possibly while the host government is detaining you as an illegal migrant. The case will take months if you are lucky and years if you are not. Some governments provide limited benefits such as housing and a small stipend for people with pending asylum cases; other governments require asylum seekers to fend for themselves.

Assuming you pass the interview and are granted asylum, what then? You might receive some assistance from the host country—housing, language instruction, job placement—or you might not. In some countries, you can petition to bring your immediate relatives (minor children and spouse) to join you. This will likely take many months, on top of the many months you already waited for the decision in your case. If you ever return to the U.S., you will quite possibly lose your asylum status and be deported from your new home. So there is a good chance you can’t ever come back, and you probably won’t see many of your relatives and friends again.

As you can see, asylum is often a difficult, frightening, and traumatic process. Good Luck (though you will need more than that!).

Originally posted on the Asylumist: