A Primer on Refugee Law and Policy
Around the globe, there are 60 million people who have been forced to leave their homes to escape war, violence and persecution. In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly created the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).The UNHCR is mandated to protect and find durable solutions for refugees.
Mass persecutions and displacements due to the second world war also propelled the advent of refugee law in form of a formal convention i.e. the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention). The 1951 Convention, is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.
The following are some questions which commonly arise with respect to the peculiarities of refugee law:
Q1. Who is a Refugee?
The modern definition of a ‘refugee’ was drafted by the 1951 UN Convention stating, “As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951] and 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; 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.”
Q2. What is persecution?
Persecution is based on:
• Race — Examples include Apartheid in South Africa, the Holocaust and slavery.
• Religion — Could be forbidding membership in a religion or severe discrimination for people who practice a religion.
• Nationality — Includes citizenship or membership in an ethnic or linguistic group. Examples include Kurds in Iraq and ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union.
• Membership in a particular social group — Examples include members of a tribe, former government employees, or homosexuals.
• Political opinion — Examples include membership or activity in an opposing political party.
Q3. What is the difference between a refugee, migrant, asylum seeker, an internally displaced person and a stateless person?
Refugee: A refugee is outside his country of origin or habitual residence. A refugee receives permission to come to the host country from being outside of that country. Refugees are resettled with the help of a refugee resettlement agency.
Asylum Seeker: An asylee is already in the host country when s/he applies for protection. Asylees have to prove that they have reason to fear persecution in their home country
Migrants usually refer to people who leave their country for reasons not related to persecution, such as searching for better economic opportunities.
Internally Displaced Persons refer to such persons who have fled their homes but are still within their countries. These are people who have fled their homes, often during a civil war, but have not sought refuge in other nations. In general, internally displaced persons have many of the same protection needs as refugees but, since they have not crossed an international border, they are not covered by the 1951 Convention or by UNHCR’s Statute.
A Stateless Person is someone who is not considered to be a national by any State under the operation of its law. He/she may be, but is not necessarily, a refugee. There are millions of stateless persons around the world.
There are many people around the world who have been displaced because of natural disasters, food insecurities and other hardships, but international law only recognizes those fleeing conflict and violence as refugees.
Q4. What are the basic rights of refugees?
Certain basic rights and obligations conferred by the 1951 Convention include:
• general obligation to conform to the law;
• access to courts
• right to work
• right to housing, education, welfare assistance and social security
• freedom of movement
Q5. What legal protections does the 1951 Convention embody?
The 1951 Convention embodies the following legal protections:
• embodies the principle of non-refoulement
• sets minimum standards for the treatment of refugees (basic rights and duties)
• precludes penalization for illegal entry
• provisions on the issuance of ID and Travel documents
• requires States to cooperate with UNHCR
Q6. What is the principle of non-refoulement?
Under the international human rights principle of non-refoulement, a country cannot deport an alien in any manner to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group, or political opinion.
Q7. What is the role of the UNHCR?
• Lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems
• Promote prevention and reduction of statelessness and protection of stateless persons as well as assisting individuals and States to resolve the situation of stateless persons
• Lead or co-lead at global level (and in many cases on national level) the protection, camp coordination and camp management as well as the emergency shelter clusters respectively as part of the humanitarian inter-agency cluster approach benefiting internally displaced persons (IDPs) in conflict situations.
Q8. What is the cause of the Refugee Crisis in Syria?
The inception of this problem dates back to 2011. Owing to the Arab Spring, the totalitarian regimes in several parts of the Arab region were challenged and attempts were made in different regions of the Middle East and Northern Africa to topple such a regime. The Al-Assad family in Syria refused to step down. As a result of this, a series of retaliations broke out across the entire country. The Syrian civilian population was trapped amidst ceaseless violent feuds between the government, the rebel groups and religious extremists.
In 2012, the rebel groups began their assault on the city of Aleppo where children were first attacked. Children being caught in the cross-fire, children being killed by stray bullets, children being attacked by snipers and rockets, children being victims of sarin gas attacks as rebels and government forces continued to fight endlessly. The additional repercussions included children being groomed to be child soldiers, killers, suicide bombers having barrel bombs dropped on their childhood.
The conflict in Syria has continued for over five years in a civil war surrounding the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad. For much of that time attacks have taken place on humanitarian convoys, medical facilities, and other forms of critical civilian aid.
Q9. What is the root of the Rohingya Crisis?
The Rohingya Crisis have been considered to be Myanmar’s worst bloodshed in generations. The Myanmar state military has launched a violent offensive against the ethnic minority group — The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. Extremists have justified state measures to protect their country against Muslim invasion. The country refused to recognize the Rohingyas as an ethnic group and in 1982, a law was passed formally denying them citizenship. In 2014, the Rohingyas were excluded from the country’s Census for the first time in 30 years.
As per a UN Report, since August 2017, 400,000 men, women and children have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The military has been accused of killing the Rohingyas, setting their villages on fire and a myriad other allegations of such a nature.
The events at Myanmar have been characterized by UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Ethnic cleansing is defined as a purposeful policy designed by “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas”.
Q10. Why should we protect refugees?
Refugees leave their country of origin involuntarily due to compelling circumstances which leave them no choice but to flee, most times, leaving behind their belongings, loved ones and old lives. A lot of them risk their lives while making a dangerous and perilous journey to another country. These circumstances often mar impressionable minds with severe psychological trauma. Moreover, today, half the world’s refugees are children, some of them unaccompanied by an adult, a situation that makes them especially vulnerable to child labour or sexual exploitation.
As humans, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that every person leads a life of peace and dignity. In these times of adversity, it is essential to keep aside prejudices, and as humans, help fellow humans smoothly transition and integrate them into a new social system and lead a joyous life.