When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded in 1950, in the wake of death and destruction wreaked by the World War II, it was expected to operate for three years and then be dissolved. Enter 2022, it’s still at work, with its need is felt more than ever before. Its role has over the years expanded and its Convention has been growing in its formulations, definitions and clauses. As the refugee crisis has risen dramatically over the past few decades, it’s essential that we have a clear understanding of different aspects and terms involved in the discourse surrounding it, including the number of people who are affected by this crisis, and what’s at stake. There are around 90 million people the world over who have been displaced from their own homeland. Among these 90 million people, 27.1 million are officially recorded as refugees and almost half of them are children. The detailed statistics regarding the refugee crisis can be had on the UNHCR website. We must be invariably conscious of the fact, however, that these are not just numbers. These include men, women, children, and the old. They are humans who dream. In this regard, we might as well make a distinction between the terms that have the potential of being conflated. There are several terms that are in use including displaced people, internally displaced people, refugees, and immigrants. The term displaced people is a general term that includes the rest we are concerned with here. Internally displaced people are those who are forced out of their own homes, but who haven’t crossed the borders of their native countries. Article 1 of the United Nation’s Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees which was adopted on 28 July 1951 defines the term refugee as “a person who 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. Contrastingly, in the absence of a proper legal definition, the term migrant or immigrant usually refers to those who move to countries other than their own to seek economic prosperity and/or live there permanently. It often involves an ambitious voluntary cross-border movement of individuals or a group of them.
The case for refugees is the case for humanity. For this purpose, the Convention has laid down their basic rights, which include, among others, education, non-discriminatory treatment, freedom to practice their religion, freedom of movement, free access to the courts of law, and the most important right of non-refoulement. It mandates that refugees will not be forced to return to their own country where they face persecution and violence. Article 1 of the Convention is rooted in Article 14 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which makes seeking asylum in other countries a human right. Since refugees are a legally recognized category, all the signatory states are under legal as well as ethical obligation to cater for these hapless people who deserve everything humans do. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees proposes at least three solutions in this matter, which include repatriation, local integration, and resettlement whose legal framework has been provided in the Convention and UNHCR’s Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern.
There are different perspectives we can look at it from, so as to bring home to ourselves the fact that refugees deserve humane treatment. Throughout history, the causes of the refugee crisis have been more or less the same. Either it has been something of a human creation like war and conflict, or climate and natural disasters. Whatever may be the reason, it’s natural that humans, if driven out of their homes, will and must seek a home in order to survive. It’s our basic and natural instinct, the first and fundamental need. Being actors in the unfortunate necessities of history, refugees exhibit and re-enact the human past which has been one of displacement, migration, and striving for survival through these means. It’s been often said that if we trace back our lineage, there’s a very likely chance that at some point some of our ancestors were refugees. The fact that humans have populated every corner of the earth after radiating from the great fields of Africa adduces it. We moved, we survived.
Immigrants and refugees are both dreamers. The latter dream of continuing their breathing, having a shelter overhead, and earning their modest living. These are the natural and basic rights each one of us has by virtue of being a human. The fact that there’s a high percentage of children among these millions of refugees who are at the intersection of exploitation makes it all the more of a human exigency that we must address. What is required is the convergence of ethics and legality in the treatment of refugees by all those states and people who host them. In cases where refugees never return to their homelands, there needs to be a segue from the label of a refugee to the label of a citizen. States need to have domestic laws that are in tandem with the norms and rules of international conventions drawn up for the treatment of people who are rendered homeless. There has to be a concerted effort by all the human actors and agencies for the restoration of the human family. The Convention has laid down all the rights that are to be given to the refugees by the states who are signatories. Therefore, it’s not only a moral duty of the states to abide by them, but a legal one too. States, non-state institutions and citizens in the past have come forward to treat them with human dignity. So must we now as one human family to ensure their safety, express solidarity, and provide solutions.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.