June 20, 2016, marks World Refugee Day, a day established by the UN General Assembly to highlight the struggles of individuals across the globe who due to the fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, cannot rely on the protection their governments.
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention)—the cornerstone of international refugee law—provides for protection for victims fleeing persecution. However, other groups of individuals such as ‘environmental’ refugees, who may be forced to flee their communities of residence due to climate change induced disasters, demand attention as well. The 65th anniversary of the Refugee Convention this year provides an opportunity to reflect on the predicament of all refugees and to recognize the responsibility of every nation towards their protection.
A continental stalemate
In Europe, the mass arrival of asylum seekers that reached its peak in 2015 generated a number of often disjointed responses. Under the leadership of Angela Merkel—2016 laureate of the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award—Europeans initially appeared to embrace their legal and moral responsibility to protect war victims. Eventually, however, the number of asylum seekers increased and the tone of the debated shifted. The fear of migrants ‘flooding’ Europe and the anxiety in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the continent altered public perception towards newcomers. Consequently, some countries on the EU’s external borders erected physical border barriers or increased border security while others enacted legislation to justify the seizing of the assets of refugees. The lack of a more concerted, long-term and value-based response to the ‘refugee crisis’ continues to negatively affect the core of the European Union’s principles, including both universal human rights and sincere cooperation and solidarity among the Member States, as well as the sustainability of the ‘borderless’ Schengen area.
Not just a European issue
While we have witnessed recently migrant deaths on the Mediterranean, Europe is not the only region in which such tragic incidents occur. In Latin America, many refugees ─for example from Cuba─ lose their lives in the Amazon and to traffickers in their pursuit of a better life in the United States. This is exacerbated by actions of transit countries such as Costa Rica and Panama involving measures to tighten their borders. The predicament of many refugees are further aggravated by ‘statelessness’, which both prompts migration and complicates the refugees’ search for a safe haven. This is evident in the precarious situations faced by, for example, the Rohingya population of Myanmar and Bangladesh while searching for refuge in other parts of Asia—a situation that has remained underreported on this side of the world. More broadly, according to UNHCR’s Mid-Year Trend Report 2015, half of the top 10 refugee hosting countries are now located in sub-Saharan Africa, including four least developed countries. Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon hosted the largest numbers of refugees in 2015 respectively. The top 10 refugee-hosting countries combined hosted 57 percent of all refugees under the UNHCR’S mandate. This clearly illustrates that refugee management is a global problem and as such demands an effective globally coordinated response.
Deplorable living conditions
Regrettably even refugees who are able to reach ‘safer’ environments do not automatically enjoy basic rights as enshrined in the Refugee Convention and related human rights instruments. In the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, which has been home to over 300,000 mainly Somalian refugees for over two decades, residents live in abominable situations with poor housing and sanitary conditions. To make matters worse, activities of the terror group Al-Shabaab in Kenya have prompted the Kenya government to threaten shutting down the camp and repatriating residents to Somalia.
A surmountable global challenge
It is evident that the suffering faced by refugees across the globe is enormous. In previous years, most attention has been devoted to Europe. However World Refugee Day should remind us of the dire situations of all refugees across the globe. From Latin America, Africa and to Southeast Asia, men, women, children, and the elderly who flee for their lives, are victimized, often repeatedly, and denied basic human rights. A global acknowledgment of their plight is deficient; concerted and effective global action is wanting. Notwithstanding the evidence of the economic and social contributions of migrants, including refugees, to host countries, there is a lack of appreciation of, and solidarity for this group.
As emphasized by the UN Secretary-General’s Report to the General Assembly in April 2016 on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, while the refugee crises around the world are serious, the challenges they pose are not insurmountable if states and civil society actors work together and share responsibility more effectively and equitably. The priority is a renewed commitment towards the protection of the most vulnerable amongst us but this must be followed by specific actions such as:
- An increase in the funding provided to UNHCR and other governmental and non-governmental bodies working on refugee protection;
- The establishment of a – binding – global regime that allows for a fair sharing of refugees among the members of the UN; and
- The increased effort to prevent violent conflict and other causes of displacement, including also climate change and extreme poverty.
Such actions will initiate the global acceptance of the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, and will mitigate the impact of violence, natural and man-made disasters, and destitution. #WithRefugees
The author would like to thank Dr. Joris Larik and the rest of the Conflict Prevention team at The Hague Institute for their invaluable feedback on previous drafts.