Another important aspect of armed conflict, which can be obscured by traditional understandings of war, is the plight of refugees. That is, soldiers are not the only members of society adversely affected by war. In fact the effects are much more wide reaching. This section will introduce historical and contemporary perspectives on the situation of refugees.
The History of the UN Convention on the Status Refugees
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (The Convention) was a response by Western states to the mass migration of displaced people caused by World War II and officially came into force in April 1954. It was drawn up at the same time as the UNHCR was created and is a legally binding treaty, which aims to facilitate the sharing of the refugee burden.
The Convention was drafted by delegates of 26 participating countries, who agreed that a refugee is a person, who has a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ and who is ‘outside the country of their former habitual residence’ because of that fear. Another important feature of the Convention is the principle of non-refoulement, meaning that no refugee should be returned to a country, ‘where his life or freedom would be threatened’.
However, as history tells us, persecution and refugees did not originate in, nor did they end with, World War II. So it was not long after the Convention was drafted that its limitations became apparent: the Convention only applied to those, who became refugees as a result of events occurring prior to January 1951. Consequently, in 1967, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted, which expanded the scope of the Convention definition by removing the geographical and time limitations.
Today, there are 146 signatories to either the Convention or the Protocol or both, but an alarming growth in refugee numbers worldwide over the last few decades has put a strain on many countries’ hospitality.
In this respect, it is important to explain the difference between (a) a migrant; (b) an asylum seeker; and (c) a refugee. While a migrant is a person who has left their country voluntarily and can return to his/her country at any time, an asylum seeker is usually someone who was forced to leave and who seeks protection in another country. However before the asylum seeker can be recognised as a Convention Refugee, they must have already left ‘the country of his former habitual residence’ and must have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ upon his/her return.
Of course, there are a much larger number of persons, who have been forced to leave their homes but who remain within the borders of their country and those, who have returned (returnees). Taken together, they are the internally displaced (IDPs), whose Government is either unwilling or unable to protect, but who do not qualify for refugeehood. They are just as important, for today’s IDPs might be tomorrow’s refugees.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS)
IDPs are persons who were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence or natural disasters but who remain within the borders of their country. The phenomenon is also known as forced migration. But, unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or conventions. Instead, the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement (1998), which incorporates existing human rights and humanitarian law, only provides authoritative guidance to humanitarian agencies.
According to the UNHCR, the estimated number of IDPs globally is 23.7 million in at least 50 countries, compared to 8.4 million refugees. For various reasons, these IDPs are either unwilling or unable to leave the borders of their State and, thus, remain the responsibility of their Government – the same Government, which can often be blamed for their displacement in the first place.
For instance, in the former Iraq, it was the Sunni-led Government of Saddam Hussein, which persecuted its Shi’a citizens. Record number of Shi’a were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Government, many Shi’a have returned to their original homes. However, with most of the infrastructure destroyed by the war, they now find themselves destitute as well as homeless again. (The situation in Iraq is, of course, not limited to only the Shi’a but includes other groups as well.)
We are constantly confronted with media images of the Iraqi war, violence and destruction. But there are many more IDPs in other parts of the world, who deserve just as much attention. Africa, for instance, has for some time been and continues to be the continent most affected by internal displacement. Who can forget the violence and the makeshift camps in Rwanda or the starving population in Ethiopia? Then there is the Americas – the list goes on and on.
There is, however, a group of IDPs, who is especially vulnerable: they are the women (in particular single women) and children. Their plight is multiplied for not only do they lack their Government’s protection but many also don’t have male protection. Females are often exploited and are in constant danger of abuse (both physical and sexual), while male children are often coerced into becoming child soldiers.
Although violence and persecution are the main causes for internal displacement, natural disasters also play a significant part in uprooting people. The December 2004 Tsunami or the 2005 South Asia Earthquake, for instance, turned millions of people into IDPs. Such natural disasters have a devastating effect because, unlike in Western countries, their Government is often unable to deal with the aftermath.
Despite its original mandate, namely to deal with refugees only, the UNHCR has been assisting IDPs in various countries since the 1970s. Initially, international donors were reluctant to interfere in internal conflicts. However, refugee-receiving countries soon realised that assisting IDPs in their own country is a far better solution than to be overwhelmed with possible refugees at a later stage.
Today, there are various non-government humanitarian organizations (NGOs), which, together with the UNHCR, offer assistance to IDPs in various ways. Amongst others, they provide IDPs with some of the basic human rights, namely the right to protection, food and shelter.
The International Perspective
People and peoples have migrated or were forced to migrate throughout history. However, it is only since globalisation that the magnitude of migration gave a new meaning to the concept. The world became connected as politics, economy, ecosystem and social tapestry of various cultures became deeply entwined – for information links people and technology enables them to travel far distances.
Overwhelmed by the number of persons seeking asylum, destination countries have introduced various deterrent measures in order to control the (unauthorised) migration flow into their territory. Most countries have allocated a certain number of places for newly arrived refugees and are reluctant to exceed this quota. For instance, although conflicts have increased in the world over the last few decades, Australia has only recently increased its humanitarian intake from 12,000 to 13,000 per annum.
As signatories to various treaties, countries have an obligation to provide protection and refuge to those in need. But, as refugee-receiving countries argue, not everyone who presents at their borders is a genuine refugee. Rather – many argue -, they are economic migrants, who had the financial means to travel to their destination. Besides, if they were genuine refugees, they should have joined the queues at the various UNHCR posts in designated countries (which, of course, are not accessible to everyone).
For various reasons – some of which are often not easily comprehensible to the Western world (e.g. people in Third World countries or countries in conflict areas do not usually carry a passport or a birth certificate during their flight) – many asylum seekers, who arrive at the borders of a destination country, present with forged or no documents. In anticipation, many States place immigration personnel at points of departure or transit or they impose carrier sanctions for transporting aliens with inadequate documentation.
While many countries have some form of detention for illegal immigrants upon their arrival in order to verify their identity, legislation often stipulates a maximum period of detention. Detention differs from country to country but it rarely exceeds a couple of months – compared to Australia’s mandatory detention policy, which has held (unauthorised) arrivals in confinement for many years. Lately, a number of States have introduced legislation that makes entry with false travel documents a criminal offence.
As if the practice of detention was not bad enough, Australia and the USA have also introduced border patrols along their coastlines, which indiscriminately turn approaching boats away if they carry human cargo. Australia, too, was first to introduce Temporary Protection Visas, which ensured that refugees left Australia after a period of time.
But, apart from the physical deterrent measures, depending on the review processes available in a particular country, asylum seekers also often have to endure a legal mire and often face long periods of uncertainty while their applications are being processed.
In Europe, asylum seekers are often accused of “country shopping” and returned to the departing country because some have crossed another border in order to feel safe. What needs to be remembered though is that the next “safe” country is often the adjoining country (e.g. Iran/Iraq) and that some of the poorest countries in the world house the largest number of refugees.