Magazine article UN Chronicle

Breaking Down Borders

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Breaking Down Borders

Article excerpt

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights declares that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State, and the right to "leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country". This means that all people should be able to move around as they please.

Reality tells a different tale, however. Restrictions and limitations are placed on how, where and why people can move within and between countries. In addition to legal and governmental restrictions, there are financial and cultural limitations that prevent people from travelling freely. They often leave their homes unwillingly or are forced to do so by unbearable conditions, such as war, poverty, unemployment, forced migration or persecution.

Despite the ideals of Article 13, not all people are able to leave their own country or legally enter another. Some should be and are considered refugees, while others are considered immigrants or "illegals". The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees clearly spells out who is to be considered a refugee, and accords specific rights and protection to them. Economic migrants--those "leaving their country willingly to seek a better life" elsewhere--and internally displaced people are not specifically protected under the Convention.

Asylum-seekers use texts such as the Universal Declaration of Human rights as defence in their claims, but are often "duly rejected", according to Robert Barsky, founder of the Article Thirteen Centre at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM).

The right to move around isn't obvious, as it might be for birds, fish or animals; it is regulated by the State", said Mr. Barsky, whose interest in the plight of refugees began when, as a doctoral student in Montreal, he worked as a transcriber for refugee hearings, and who is currently a visiting professor of literature at Yale University. "I have for a long time been interested in the relationship between international organs of assistance like the United Nations and UNHOR, and all of these wonderful treaties that they produce, and concrete actions which occur in the local population", he said.

The Centre's first event was a recent conference on migration and border studies held at UQAM. Participants from South Africa, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Rwanda, Burundi and other countries came together to discuss concepts such as "The Right to Return in the Aftermath of the Ethiopian/Eritrean War", "Borderline Security" and "Migration Law and Inequality".

Discussion began with Mr. Barsky's opening statement, in which he introduced the concept of a borderless society. "I thought to use as a starting point the idea of open borders--forget about whether or not it's possible tomorrow, forget about the role that the State plays, forget about the status quo", he explained. "Begin with that assumption--people move around, they've always moved around, it's normal to move around." It is, Mr. Barsky admitted, a utopian view of things, but he believed it to be a more interesting starting point than simply outlining the problem and discussing possible solutions.

Speakers at the conference included such notable names as Julius Grey, a well-known Canadian constitutional and human rights lawyer, who spoke on the problems inherent in the definition of refugee status; Debbie Anker, a Harvard professor, on refugees, gender and human rights; and Thomas Spijkeboer, a law professor from Amsterdam, on the effects of migration on the labour market and family structure in the Netherlands. …

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