Human Rights

Respect Rights of Refugees; UN's campaign #WithRefugees

On June 20th the UN World Refugee Day, will once again be observed ‘tohonour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence’. There is the obvious danger that such a day may water down to mere ‘photo-ops’ and cosmetic events  unless the world wakes up urgently to the endemic causes, which create forcible displacements and ultimately refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched  last June, a global campaign through the #WithRefugees  petition demanding that world leaders and governments work together and do much more for refugees.

A top priority has to be that Governments and people respect the rights of all forcibly displaced persons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14) states,‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. In keeping with the letter and spirit of this Right, more than 145 countries of the world have signed the United Nations ‘1951 Refugee Convention’ and the ‘Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967’

India is one of the few democracies in the world that is not a signatory to both the Refugee Convention and the Protocol. This is very unfortunate and certainly beyond comprehension. India has a track record of hosting millions of refugees from the neighbouring countries and even from some African ones. Thanks to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Government, in May 1971 India provided refuge to more than ten million Bangladeshis, in the wake of the civil war there. Today, besides the many Bangladeshis who have continued to stay on, there are thousands of Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghanis, and Rohingyas from Myanmar, Bhutanese from Nepal and even from Sudan, Somalia and other sub- Saharan African countries who have sought refuge in India.

The refugee crisis has gripped the world as never before! Sometime ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pegged the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world as 65.3 million. This means that one in every 113 people on earth has now been driven from their home by war, persecution, human rights violations or climate change (which is erroneously and conveniently referred to as ‘natural disasters’). To put it more graphically each minute about 24 people around the world have to flee their home for no fault of their own. With the escalation of violence in several countries like Yemen, DRC, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and  that more than 20 million people are affected across Africa because of war, drought and hunger- the actual figures of refugees and the displaced might be much more.

More than half of the refugees (53%) today come from just three countries: Syria (4.9m), Afghanistan (2.7m) and Somalia (1.1m). Strangely enough and contrary to public perception the countries which host the most amount of refugees today are Turkey (2.5m), Pakistan (1.6m),Lebanon (1.1m), Iran (979,400), Ethiopia (736,100) and Jordan (664,100).

Sadly xenophobia, jingoism, racism, discrimination is on the ascendancy in several countries. There are fascist and fundamentalist groups and individuals who are unable to tolerate those different from them. There are some ‘world leaders’ who want to build walls to keep others out. This prompted the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to recently condemn “aggressive nationalism” in western democracies and called for greater social cohesion saying that, “It is essential to not just address the humanitarian crises, but to build resilience - of populations, of regions and countries - to create the conditions for those humanitarian crises not to be repeated.”

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are often conveniently forgotten. A recently published report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (of the Norwegian Refugee Council) states that, “more than 31 million people- one every second- were uprooted in their home country in 2016 because of conflicts and disasters, and numbers will grow unless the underlying causes like climate change and political turmoil are tackled.”. Adding to the woes of the IDPs, that unlike refugees who seek asylum in other countries, they are unable to claim any international protection since they remain in their own country.

IDPs in India could easily run into a mind-boggling figure. Communal and caste violence in  many places, the construction of mega-projects by powerful vested interests and even by Government, famines, floods and other ‘natural’ disasters have displaced hundreds of thousands all over the country. Most of those affected are the poor and vulnerable like the adivasis, dalits and minorities. The official response to the plight of IDPs is criminally pathetic.

The military- industrial complex profits greatly from wars and conflicts all over. India’s budgetary outlay for arms and ammunition puts into shade the much needed expenditure for the social sector. The global refugee crisis is bound to continue as long as countries like the US continue to produce arms and ammunition and sell them to countries like Saudi Arabia. Recently US and Saudi Arabia signed an arms deal of $110 billion. Sadly, there is no international outrage condemning such arms deal.

So as we observe yet another World Refugee Day let us ensure that the decision-makers of this world have the sagacity and the political will to respect the rights of the forcibly displaced and above all, to tackle the endemic issues which are responsible for the  refugee crisis!

Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist and is currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and   communications. Contact cedricprakash$  

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