This post was co-authored with Constance A. Johnson, a senior legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress. Connie is chair of the Law Library’s planning committee for Human Rights Day and has previously blogged about Law Relating to Refugee Rights – Global Legal Collection Highlights, Law and Longitude, Water Rights at Star Island, and our Guide on Legal Translation.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 15.4 million refugees in the world at the end of 2012. The Syrian civil war alone has led to the creation of 1.6 million refugees. Recent conflicts in places like Central African Republic and South Sudan have also exacerbated the global refugee problem. In addition to refugees, there are large numbers of people – referred to as internally displaced persons or IDPs – who have had to leave their homes as a result of natural or man-made disasters but have not crossed international borders.
The laws and structures related to the rights of refugees and IDPs are particularly interesting to examine as the area involves international law, regional agreements, domestic laws, and various human rights and humanitarian issues. Members of the Law Library’s planning committee for our 2013 Human Rights Day event believed this was a very worthy and important topic for discussion. As a result, we hosted a panel discussion centered on issues related to refugee rights on January 7, 2014. Originally scheduled to coincide with International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2013, the event was postponed due to inclement weather.
Peter Roudik, the Law Library’s Director of Global Legal Research, opened the program, which was held in celebration of the 64th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He introduced the three panel members, who spoke on aspects of the rights of refugees.
The first speaker was Olivia Bueno, the Associate Director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative. She described the global legal architecture for refugee rights as based on the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. In Africa the legal architecture is even more generous than the Convention, but there are still many challenges related to refugee protection. One notable challenge that Bueno raised was the issue of lack of resources; how often countries neighboring the countries that generate refugees, which themselves are impoverished, receive large numbers of refugees. These countries may lack the capacity and the reach to offer effective protection. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which hosts around 141,000 Rwandan and 50,000 Central African Republic refugees, is an example.
There have been restrictions on refugee rights in the countries in which they are sheltered, as well as forced repatriations. Bueno noted that these restrictions often prevent refugees from being able to integrate or repatriate. She used the different treatment of Burundi refugees that arrived in Tanzania at two different times and the effect it had on their lives to illustrate this point. The first batch of refugees, who arrived in Tanzania in the 1970s, were given opportunities to be self-sufficient, including through the allocation of farm land which helped them both integrate better and gave them the resources and the confidence to repatriate at will. Refugees that came from Burundi in the 1990s were not afforded the same opportunities. They are seen as a burden on the country’s resources and are often pressured to repatriate. Although the civil war in Burundi ended in 2005, the situation there still remains unstable.
The second speaker was George Sadek, a senior legal analyst at the Law Library. He described legal provisions on refugees in Arabic speaking countries, which host an increasing number of refugees. He focused on four countries: Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan – countries in the region that host the highest number of refugees. Sadek noted that the influx of a high number of refugees both from the region and from Africa over the years has given rise to a number of legal instruments on the subject. Various national laws and directives have been issued that directly impact refugees in each country. For instance, Egypt has issued a law banning foreigners from owning land as well as one banning children of foreigners born in Egypt from acquiring citizenship. Sadek also pointed out that in many of the countries refugees have difficulty getting permission to work or enroll their children in school.
There have been regional efforts to address refugee issues with the most notable examples being the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons in the Arab World and the 1994 Arab Convention on Regulating the Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries. In addition, some Arab countries have signed the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Sadek noted, however, that even where the Convention has been signed, it is not being fully implemented. Human rights organizations have suggested that all countries that signed the Convention and its 1967 Protocol enact comprehensive domestic legislation on refugee benefits, create reception centers, and cooperate with the UNHCR.
The third speaker, Linda Rabben, an author and anthropologist, called the audience’s attention to a recent Washington Post article by Stephen Hopgood who stated that we are reaching the end of the human rights era. She disagreed, arguing that we are just at the beginning. She described the development of the right and obligation of sovereign nations to give refuge to those in need, as well as the 20th century imposition of restrictions in many countries, including the United States. She described asylum seekers as distinct from refugees in that they are making an individual claim that return to home countries would expose them to persecution. It is increasingly difficult for applicants to negotiate the complex regulations concerning asylum in different countries, and she argued that it is up to people in those countries to pressure governments to establish laws and systems for such people that provide for their rights and needs.
Following the three presentations, Roudik led a discussion session, posing questions to each of the speakers and taking a few inquiries from audience members.
This event was live-tweeted by Law Library staff and you can read the tweets by going to the Law Library Twitter account, @lawlibcongress, using
#HumanRightsDay. You can read a report on the legal status of refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq by going to our website. We also recorded the event and will put the video on our YouTube page and embed it in this post once it is available.