We hear about refugees and immigrants a lot more in the news than we used to before. Who are refugees anyway? By standard definition, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. Refugees do not willingly leave their country, they don’t get up one fine morning and make the decision to leave their career, home, community, family, wealth, and everything behind. An immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country, for the same exact reasons why any of us do what we do every day, to not just survive but succeed and provide for our family.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee 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 2019 Emory International Law Review facilitated a symposium on the topic – “Continued Relevance and Challenges of the 1951 Refugee Convention on Global, Regional, and Local Levels”. After having worked with many refugees through a charity clinic as a medical interpreter, I decided to attend the symposium and further expand my knowledge and understanding towards this marginalized and vulnerable community.
The world is right now facing the highest level of displacement, we are breaking the record. According to UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), there are 68.5 million people who have been forced out of their own homes, among them are 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Every two seconds 1 person is forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution. The notion that refugees and immigrants are here to ‘steal are jobs’ or they are ‘dangerous people’ who need to be kept afar, is shallow rhetoric if we look at the facts and the actual situation on the ground.
Two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries- Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and, Myanmar. These are countries that are worst of the worst in terms of freedom and are engulfed with authoritarianism, civil war and, dictatorship. Civilians in these countries fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Some of these countries are pseudo-democratic.
During the symposium, one of the key panelists James C. Hathaway(Director, Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, University of Michigan Law School) expressed the following major points about the convention; during the drafting, states agreed on a common definition of refugee status and recognized refugee rights under which economic empowerment of refugees as well as circumstances of the states to which the refugees flee will be taken into account. However, the agreement was missing a key element, a common operational mechanism, one that would ensure that protection burdens and responsibilities are fairly shared among States.
Recently an effort was made to sew in the third element, the operational pillar of the Convention, the Global Compact on Refugees (Refugee Compact). Which according to Professor Hathaway furthers us from the main objective of proving equitable sharing of burden and responsibility. A state-by-state approach to refugee protection is a terrible idea due to the fact that many times refugees have to risk their lives in order to save it, at the behest of violent rebels, smugglers and even traffickers. A third of the world’s refugees live in camps and others live in urban slums where refugee rights that the convention offers are not accessible.
Two-thirds of the world’s refugees wait for an average of two decades for a solution, out of which only less than 1 percent are actually resettled in any given year. 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries some of which are very poor themselves, where the developed countries only takes in 15 percent. Developed countries spend at least $20 billion each year to fund their refugee reception efforts, more than four times the amount the United Nations (UN) refugee agency has available to meet the needs of the 85 percent of refugees in poor countries. This approach clearly does not provide any practical solutions and misallocates resources. Reform needs to sprout from change in the global refugee system.
One of the attendees of the symposium, an immigration lawyer, and an immigrant herself originally from Iran, expressed her reasons and frustrations over the mess and misinformation the current US administration has spread. Her family escaped the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the civil war that followed. The Islamic Revolution was a series of events that took place to overthrow the last monarch of Iran, the Shah of Iran, an ally of the US. This lawyers’ voice echoed in the hall as she expressed that one of the main reason why there are so many conflicts, and refugees as a result is due to the US’s unfettered support of funds and weapons to people like Shah of Iran, several coup-de-etat in the Middle-East, and financial support to Mujahideen the first place.
I express similarity with her beliefs when she said that the real victims of this mess are refugees and immigrants, many of whom are innocent people who have been forced out of their own homes, at the behest of powerful, selfish, war mongering politicians and states. And that there needs to be reform in the system. Voices of people who have experienced the truth needs to be heard. She ended her discourse with the words “They need to hear this”.
Photo by Milos Bicanski, “Afghan children outside of a tent in a refugee camp in Malakasa”.