By Lara Kajs
People become refugees because their basic human rights have been violated or threatened.
It is inconceivable that a leader of a nation (or someone who wants to be the leader) would declare that they will send back refugees from a war torn nation, yet that is exactly what Donald Trump (2016 Republican presidential hopeful) did in Keene, New Hampshire during a speech when he said, “If I’m elected, they (Syrian refugees) are going back”. Not only is this way of thinking unethical and disturbing, but it is a direct contradiction of everything that international refugee law represents.
Firstly, to suggest that a country would force the return of individuals to a dangerous situation or environment is reckless and inhuman. The reality is that no one wakes up one day and decides that they will become a displaced person or refugee because they live in optimum conditions. On the contrary, ask any one of the nearly 60 million refugees on the planet why they are displaced and they will likely describe the horrors of war, mass bombing, use of chemicals in bombing, murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, forced disappearances, extermination, mass deportation, imprisonment, apartheid, persecution based on political, racial, national, ethnic, religious, cultural and gender, and denial of humanitarian aid.
International Law Protects Refugees
There are a number of international laws that work to protect the human rights of refugees; the most important of these are the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Although the 1951 Convention pertained to refugees prior to 1951, it became clear that refugee status was not a temporary issue and was not exclusive to the Second World War. The 1967 Protocol extended the Convention to include all refugees past, present and future.
As of 2015, 148 countries have signed both the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. It is important to note that while the U.S. is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention, it signed the 1967 Protocol on November 1, 1968. Further, the rights of refugees are avowed and recognized in the International Bill of Human Rights which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Refugees and Human Rights
Under international human rights law, refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to enjoy all the rights and freedoms set forth including the right to life, protection from ill-treatment and torture, the right to nationality, freedom of movement, the right to leave any country – including one’s own – and to return to one’s country and the right not to be forcibly returned. In fact, the 1951 Convention strictly prohibits the forcible return of refugees. Article 33 states “no Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Protection of non-return (non-refoulement) is further issued in article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states: “No State Party shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture” (para. 1).
Paragraph 2 continues “for the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights”. Clearly the conditions in Syria (and many other countries) meet these standards.
Furthermore, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The rights of the displaced are supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which works to protect the basic rights of refugees which often include processing asylum seekers, resettlement, physical protection of refugees, and legal counsel and aid.
Mass Exodus of Refugees
As a result of the Syrian Civil War – which is in its fourth year – approximately 4 million people have fled Syria, taking refuge in other countries, while nearly 7 million are internally displaced in Syria. Meanwhile an estimated 160,000 have sought asylum in European countries. The mass exodus of refugees from the crisis in Syria alone has been enough to put tremendous economic stress on the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq. Unfortunately the Syrians are not the only refugee crisis at the present. The refugee situations in South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Burundi are building by the day and then there are the crises in Myanmar and Yemen.
The fact is that the mass exodus of refugees across the map has grown to such epic proportions that it has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in recorded history. The bottom line is that as millions fall under the protection of international refugee law, no leader and no country can send them back. And quite frankly, to suggest forcing them to go back is irresponsible and criminal.
Featured Image:Police struggle to maintain order as refugees attempt to leave the border crossing in Nickelsdorf, Austria Photo: Reuters