No-one expects to become a refugee. A doctor heads home from their work, a mechanic fixes a car, a girl walks to school, and a father kisses his son goodnight. Each one of them expects tomorrow to be the same as today. But fear can come in moments.
It can be the sound of gunfire, the fall of a bomb, a knock at the door. Many of the people forced to flee have just minutes to make vital decisions, to grab what they can and run. Where will they go? How will they travel? What will they take? These are desperate choices, made in moments that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.
The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization. References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians. In the 20th century, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its 1967 Protocol, became the cornerstone documents for the international protection of refugees.
According to the Refugee Convention a refugee is someone 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. Since 1951, the situation has evolved. Armed conflicts in Africa causing large-scale displacement brought about the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention. This extended refugee status to individuals compelled to leave their country of origin owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order. Likewise, in the Americas, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration established regional standards for refugees in Latin America. Marginalized groups, such as women and girls, have always faced particularly devastating consequences as a result of conflict.
In general, women and girls are more often the targets of gender-based violence, which is frequently cited among the leading drivers of displacement. But not every refugee is fleeing a war zone. Many leave their homes for other reasons, whether it be persecution due to religious beliefs or journalistic, political or even artistic activity. Today, as noted by the 1951 Convention, a fear of persecution is still a key driver of flight, but the interpretation of “persecution” has evolved. For example, it now includes sexual orientation. The protection of individuals in need of international protection has a few fundamental aspects: Access to asylum procedures that are fair and efficient; Safety from being returned to the dangers they have fled; Measures to ensure that in the country of asylum human rights are respected in order to live in dignity. Currently, record numbers of people are forced to seek international protection. Considering that proving fear of persecution has never been straightforward, it is crucial that persons seeking international protection, though in some cases fleeing in large groups should never be denied an individual hearing to present the reasons why he or she needs such protection.
Just like anyone else, refugees have rights and States have a duty to protect them. The basis of these rights is found in the 1951 Geneva Convention and its Protocol. Within the UN system, the key agency involved in protecting refugees is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. The core principle of the 1951 Convention is “non-refoulement”: no refugee should be returned to a country where they could face serious threats to their life or freedom. But rights are worthless if we don’t know we have them. Because of this, State agents – such as border guards and other officials– are under an obligation to inform people crossing their borders of their right to seek international protection as refugees. And, when someone does seek that protection, States are under a duty to ensure the asylum procedure is fair and effective. To help ensure fairness, people seeking asylum should be told about the right to legal advice and to interpretation. There is no such thing as a typical refugee. People of any age, race, gender or religion can be forced to leave their homes. They can come from any walk of life. All have the right to be treated equally and States must not discriminate between them, whether in deciding to grant them asylum or after asylum has been granted. Claiming refugee status doesn’t mean giving up universal human rights. Refugees still have rights to education, to access to the courts, to employment and other fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of movement, to security of the person, to family life and to liberty. Like anyone else, some refugees may be vulnerable due to the trauma they have fled or marginalized because of their age, health, gender or sexual orientation. States are under a duty to recognize the particular needs of individuals and respond to them, for instance by providing separate accommodation for people of different genders or education for the young. Because detaining asylum seekers affects their human rights, when possible, detention should be avoided and it should be for the shortest possible period of time. Children should never be placed in immigration detention. Victims of torture and other serious violence need special attention and should generally not be detained. If someone is detained, there must be valid reasons for doing so, and those reasons must be explained to them. The conditions in which they are detained must be safe and appropriate, with detainees given access to legal advice, healthcare and the UNHCR. Refugees have rights, just like everyone else. By knowing those rights, you can play your part in making sure they are recognized and enforced.
Sometimes, refugee families are separated, as one or more family member may leave home first and find refuge in another country, and then wait for the other family members to join them. The right to family life is enshrined in numerous international treaties and most countries grant visas to allow refugee families to be reunited. However, the procedure to obtain these visas is often long and complicated. Eager to join their family members, many refugees decide to embark on dangerous journeys. The international community has a duty to assist. Not just a moral duty, which should be sufficient by itself, but also a legal duty. Another responsibility often overlooked is that to resettle refugees. Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of the most vulnerable refugees from the country where they find themselves to a third State, which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status.
The residency status ensures protection against refoulement and allows the refugees to rebuild their lives. Resettlement may also carry with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the receiving country. So why are millions of refugees left in refugee camps or in countries, which do not have the infrastructure nor the resources to support them? A tested system, managed by UNHCR, already exists. While the number of States, which provide resettlement places, has risen to about 30 out of 196 existing countries, refugees in need of resettlement still significantly outstrip the number of places available. We are not asking governments to do the impossible, but they must be reminded that violations occur when States do not share responsibilities and work together. If governments did their bit, we wouldn’t have a crisis. Until then, campaigning and community action must continue. It is vital that governments are reminded of their obligations.
Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant, hails from Raiyar Doodhpathri and writes on current affairs.