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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - NGO Forum: The Barriers are going up (Amnesty International)

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - NGO Forum: The Barriers are going up (Amnesty International)
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
Amnesty International and human rights.

A new system of checks and balances is needed to help a growing number of uprooted peoples

Fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the very foundation of refugee protection is under increasing threat. The world is faced with unprecedented numbers of victims of forced displacement. At the same time, many states are denying protection to refugees and asylum seekers and have ignored the very principles of protection they themselves agreed on.

It is clear that mass human rights abuses trigger mass movements of refugees, yet increasingly the international community is failing to prevent those abuses, and is standing by as the numbers fleeing violations multiply. Then, faced with the flight of millions, states have responded by closing their borders, shifting reponsibility to the countries and regions which refugees have fled from.

The very countries which were instrumental in the initial drafting and adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention, have put in place barriers to obstruct access to their borders, and often deny protection to qualified individuals. Many people are simply denied access to the asylum process, are incorrectly found to not meet the refugee definition, are detained, or are sent back to countries in which they will not be safe.

Some states refuse to provide protection to refugees fleeing persecution meted out by armed opposition groups or other non-state actors, granting protection only to those fleeing human rights violations at the hands of governments. Refugees are interdicted on the seas and forcibly returned to their countries without any attempt at identifying those needing protection. Hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking shelter in refugee camps have been forcibly returned to countries which are not safe and many remain unaccounted for.

If this is what more and more states are doing to avoid protecting refugees, what is being done to call them to account? Unfortunately, the answer is that there is scant monitoring and little accountability to ensure countries uphold their protection obligations. The unchecked actions of these states means that core principles of refugee protection are being redefined in a manner which risks rendering the principle of non refoulement a meaningless standard.

Fundamental questions of the viability of the current refugee regime must now be answered and urgent consideration given to the proper implementation of existing standards and principles. Efforts to formulate new standards in light of complex displacement issues must be guided by the highest standards of human rights. And most importantly, a mechanism for effective monitoring and reports of all aspects of refugee protection must be introduced.

Refugee protection is an important dimension of overall human rights protection, but monitoring the rights of refugees is one of the weakest parts of this system. International human rights treaties often have a monitoring mechanism, allowing independent experts to review states' compliance and make recommendations on a state's performance. States themselves are usually required to report on the implementation of recommendations, and some treaties allow individuals to file petitions alleging abuse of their rights.

As well, some treaty bodies have evolved to play an important role in both state's human rights and refugee policies. In 1997, the Human Rights Committee recommended that the definition of 'persecution' be broadened to include people fleeing not only from state harassment but also from persecution by non-state actors, and said a country ignored its obligations by detaining a refugee without allowing for a regular review of the detention. Another group, The Committee against Torture, reviewed the situation of many asylum seekers and concluded that several states had threatened to return these people to their home country in violation of the governments' international obligations.

Worryingly, there is no such monitoring procedure in the Refugee Convention. While UNHCR functions as a supervisory body and states are obliged to cooperate with UNHCR and report on implementation of the Convention, information which is provided is not comprehensively publicly available. UNHCR's ability to publicly report on states' performance is severely constrained because it can only operate effectively in countries where governments grant access and it needs the cooperation of major funding states. In some situations, UNHCR has been effectively silenced, caught between uncooperative host states and countries of origin and with no international support.

At a time of growing mass movements of people, the lack of effective checks on how governments treat refugees and asylum seekers makes the refugee protection system extremely vulnerable. Governments which want to turn their backs on refugees are not formally challenged or reprimanded. For this reason, Amnesty International believes that an effective way to monitor how or whether governments live up to their obligations is crucial. Otherwise, the erosion of refugee protection will continue and the men, women and children who need protection will be betrayed.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)