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Refugees Magazine Issue 109 (1997 In Review) - Protection

Refugees Magazine Issue 109 (1997 In Review) - Protection
Refugees (109, III - 1997)

1 September 1997
"Refugee protection, at its heart, is a shared undertaking. Countries of origin, asylum and donor states must play their full role if it is to work." . . .

Untold numbers of Rwandans were simply swallowed up by the great rain forests of Central Africa, victims of systematic slaughter by possees of armed killers or natural calamity. Others were forcibly thrown out to an uncertain fate by regional governments increasingly intolerant of the human tragedy sweeping across the continent. Aid workers, too, were harassed, imprisoned and expelled. Several paid the ultimate price with their own lives.

In Europe, governments erected a set of driftnet laws making it more difficult for refugees to seek asylum. Groups of Bosnians were deported to their still ravaged and fragile homeland and a new EU protocol encouraged states not to accept asylum applications from member countries, an obvious violation of at least some of the basic provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Taliban forces in Afghanistan pursued such repressive measures against civilians, especially women, that international aid and humanitarian officials began to openly question an increasingly fundamental issue of whether Afghanistan or any country wracked by such division and brutality could or should receive outside assistance.

The year 1997 was undoubtedly an 'annus horribilis' and could yet prove a watershed in the world of refugee protection as the problems of trying to help an increasing number of displaced peoples cut across recognized social, economic, political and geographical lines and the so-called north-south divide. Governments and humanitarian organizations did agree on one thing: there is a major problem. After that, many could only agree to disagree on just what that problem was, who was responsible and what could effectively be done to successfully tackle the issue.

Human Rights Watch, for instance, early in 1997 issued a comprehensive report stating that 'Protection of refugees and asylum seekers around the world has deteriorated over the past couple of decades'. It went on to criticize hardline government attitudes towards the world's dispossessed and also some of UNHCR's protection policies.

Dennis McNamara, UNHCR's international protection director used even more blunt language in declaring that, 'today, refugee protection and the institution of asylum are probably facing the greatest global challenge in their history.'

In repeated speeches, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said that protection issues had become infinitely more complex and there were no longer any easy answers even on such basic issues as voluntary repatriation. In Central Africa, tens of thousands of people faced a stark choice: almost certain death in the rain forests or accepting help from UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to return to an admittedly uncertain future in their homeland.

With rhetoric sometimes threatening to overwhelm reality, it became imperative toward the end of 1997 to cut through the swirling clouds of propaganda to explore and clarify basic problems and issues and try to forge a new consensus for the end of this century.

The last year saw the largest loss of refugee life in recent history, according to McNamara, while at the same time some governments were 'systematically, intentionally and openly attacking the international system created' to protect refugees. UNHCR and the principles it embodies had also 'been abused in a manner which has not previously been seen by us in recent times.'

While UNHCR continued to enjoy generous financial backing, McNamara insisted that political support and state responsibility were the crucial underpinning of the protection system and they were now sorely lacking. 'Refugee protection, at its heart, is a shared undertaking. Countries of origin, asylum and donor states must play their full role if it is to work,' the official said. 'Humanitarian agencies support this process, but they cannot replace it.'

Many key issues remain unresolved heading into 1998. There is continued vigorous debate on the fundamental issue of whether and when humanitarian agencies should withdraw from particular crises. That dilemma was painfully evident - and divided the humanitarian community - in both the Great Lakes and Afghanistan.

What is the future of voluntary return? 'That may be the KEY issue,' says McNamara. 'We are trying to formulate an acceptable position for situations where the classic voluntary return is no longer possible. What should our bottom line be? When should we say no and when should we protest? Should we stay in a less than ideal situation or simply walk away?'

Involved governments, humanitarian and human rights organizations must, according to most experts, forge even closer and more effective ties. Other institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should be encouraged to participate in humanitarian activities and governments must be persuaded to respect current international obligations.

The refugee problem is manageable if it is not politically dramatized,' insists McNamara. The current system does not need to be junked, as some would insist. Existing international instruments CAN maintain a proper balance between safeguarding refugee rights and the legitimate concerns of states if they are properly implemented. But unless there is a renewed international consensus among states to vigorously support the system, then vulnerable refugees will continue to be victims.