It will be World Refugee day on 20 June 2012. In Australia it is easy, and natural, to become consumed by the arrival of asylum seekers by boat and plane. But today I want to highlight the bigger picture of what World Refugee day means.
When highly respected Norwegian scientist and explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, was appointed High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations in 1920, the plight of asylum changed forever. The act of seeking asylum was still an ad hoc state-by-state process, with selective recognition of the plight of those forced to flee. But an international voice had been given to the refugee experience, and innovative diplomatic developments such as the ‘Nansen passport’ allowed Russian refugees (fleeing Communist revolution and displacement after World War I) to move and seek hospitable protection. The Russian refugees were the first group of refugees Nansen had responsibility for seeking international norms pertaining to their protection and needs; Nansen would assume the responsibility of many more such groups during his tenure as High Commissioner. As he did so, he sought to promote the idea of an international obligation to ensure that the protection needs of the refugee were not met with ad hoc responses by the state. The temporary, selective responses to asylum, Nansen contended, needed to shift to a collective solution accepted by all states that would provide enduring protection of the most vulnerable – those without a safe country to call home.
With the onset of World War II and the collapse of the League of Nations the number of refugees expanded beyond comprehension: 20 to 30 million people were displaced or not able to return to their home in the aftermath of the war. In the lead up to, and during the war, many countries closed their borders to prevent Jews and others from fleeing the Nazis. Many more would have escaped the Holocaust had countries not closed their hearts and their borders.
The creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was born out three lessons from the World War II experience. First, ‘never again’ shall the international community avoid its responsibility to assist people fleeing persecution. Second, and less fortunate, refugees could be useful propaganda for illustrating the illegitimacy of the regime they fled. Third, the problem of displacement was not going to disappear. It was well understood that the international community needed rules and institutions to handle the rise and fall of people having to flee violence, repression and persecution. The arrival of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, and the upheaval of decolonisation and communist-capitalist proxy wars in Africa, South America and Asia, created new large refugee flows and proved the necessity for the UNHCR and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol). The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the fragmentation of Eastern Europe created further flows return across Europe in numbers not seen since the 1960s; while political repression and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and Middle East have contributed to steady refugee flows to today.
In 2011, the best available statistics reveal that there are 10 million refugees – people whose status has been confirmed. There are then a remaining 23 million people who are internally displaced, are seeking asylum at this moment, are stateless, being returned to their homeland (in transit) or in need of UNHCR protection (i.e. humanitarian assistance provided by the agency to people displaced by natural disaster, armed conflict and other causes). Put into perspective, that means that there is a group of people larger than Australia’s whole population, living in limbo, hand-to-mouth and in need of a safe home. What does this situation look like? Consider two conflicts this month that are adding to the statistics on displacement:
Syrian Arab Republic
Approximately 78 000 people have registered as refugees fleeing Syria civil unrest – in Turkey there are an 30 800 estimated to be living in camps; Jordan (21,400), Lebanon (27,500) and Iraq (4,000). Turkey received 2,000 displaced people in one day after the Houla massacre. People with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, some with gunshot wounds, all undoubtedly traumatised. There is no knowing when their situation will end. Consider also the fact that Syria has been host to over a million refugees from other sources of conflict in and around the region (Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia). Turkish authorities have said they can accommodate up to 35,000 refugees in settlements on the border, after this threshold is reached the situation will need to be reconsidered with the assistance of the UN Security Council. This weekend, the UN observer mission in Syria announced the mission would be suspended due to high risk to unarmed observers and escalating bloodshed in the areas the mission were seeking access. In April 2012 the UNHCR announced it was 80% short of the funds needed to provide safe accommodation, processing and humanitarian needs. Watch this space.
North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
Disastrous Displacement situation – “You wait for a whole day for one bowl of porridge, and there is violence”, Jeremiah, sheltering in a remote hospital in Rutshuru District.
The DRC government estimates at least 120 people have died since mid-May. These are primarily women and children subjected to village-to-village massacres by groups competing for territory, power and resources. Thousands have been raped, including young girls and elderly women. When people reach the borders of Uganda and Rwanda seeking refuge, there are tens of thousands more like them living in temporary and underfunded shelters provided by UNHCR and associated NGOs. In one night during the fighting in May, 7 000 people sought to cross the Bunagana border between Congo and Uganda. Ongoing fighting between Mai-Mai rebels (ethnic Tembos), pro-Hutu militia groups (FDLR) who took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Congolese army (FARDC) and the Rwandan forces (RLF) is at the root of this violence. The UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, has an operational mandate to protect civilians, especially the displaced. In reality, this often means the positioning of no more than four heavy machine guns on hilltop positions surrounding an enclosed area no bigger than a football pitch with civilians inside and troops outside. The troops are vulnerable and under resourced – which threatens the security of civilians who trust MONUSCO as best placed to keep them safe. Meanwhile donor fatigue and inadequate logistics and resources hampers the mission in North Kivu – an area twice the size of Rwanda. The UNHCR estimates that 100 000 people have fled the violence since April. Jeremiah’s nine-year-old daughter was apprehended and raped while she and her grandmother were fleeing their village.
Sara Davies, Human Protection Hub