A Universal Mandate to Protect: The Challenges of Refugee Protection

Article excerpt

The global presence of refugees is one of the hallmarks of the modern era. On every continent people are being forced from their homes, communities, and countries of origin because of persecution or violence. During the 1990s in the aftermath of the Cold War, huge numbers of refugees fled brutal internal conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia. Recently, state failure and collapse in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe, internal conflicts in Darfur and Colombia, the global "War on Terror" and the resulting occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan have displaced millions more people.


While the crisis of forced displacement is global, some regions of the world are more affected than others. For example, the great majority of the world's refugees originates from some of the most fragile states in the global South and are hosted by states that typically fall toward the bottom of most development rankings. In contrast, less than 5 percent of refugees seek asylum in the industrialized countries of the North. In the developing world, many are warehoused in refugee camps or live on the margins of overcrowded cities. Many will remain in these conditions for years--even decades--trapped in prolonged exile. In fact, about two-thirds of the world's refugees today are in protracted refugee situations.

I became acutely aware of this problem at the end of 2001 during a visit to the Somali refugee camps in Dadaab in northern Kenya. The refugees I spoke to had been contained in these camps for over a decade and they complained that they were invisible to the international community. There appeared no end in sight to their predicament. Unfortunately, the situation in Dadaab has changed little since 2001, as Somalia itself has collapsed in the midst of renewed chaos and killing. The population in these camps has increased from the 120,000 at the time of my visit some eight years ago to well over 300,000 today. There is no doubt that among them are people I spoke to in 2001.


The world's refugee population is becoming more protracted every day. Worldwide, the average length of major refugee situations has increased from nine years in 1993 to about twenty years today. The continuation of protracted refugee situations constitutes a striking example of the failure of the international community to protect today's refugees.

The Problem of Defining Refugees

Contemporary international concern for refugees is centered around the concept of the protection of human rights and has its origins in the immediate aftermath of World War II. As a consequence of the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs in German-occupied Europe, human rights emerged as one of the central themes of post-war agreements and institutions. Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided that "everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." While this so-called "right to asylum" was not enshrined in future agreements, significant new steps were taken to improve refugee protection. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 in order to ensure refugees' access to protection and to a solution to their plight. The following year the international community formulated the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defined a refugee as a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of persecution ... is outside of his or her country of nationality." Thus the term refugee refers to a person who has fled across the physical borders of her homeland to seek refuge in another place. The Convention also stipulates that those individuals granted refugee status receive certain rights not available to other international migrants, including the right of resettlement and legal protection from deportation or forcible return to her country of origin (the so-called non-refoulement protection). …


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