Do refugees have rights?
Posted September 28, 2016
As world leaders grapple with how to help refugees in the largest migration crisis since World War II, citizens across Europe are weighing in with protests on both sides of the issue.
Rallies in England and Slovenia over the weekend called for resettling more refugees in Europe and faster movement on asylum applications. Others, such as one in Germany several weeks ago, have demanded stronger border protections and the rejection of Muslim migrants.
In Greece, demonstrations can be a family affair. At one march this summer, parents pushed babies in strollers, kids folded informational pamphlets into paper airplanes, and men performed traditional dances from Afghanistan and Syria.
Greek citizens and newly arrived migrants mingled beneath a billboard of the tourism industry that read, “Welcome to Greece!” They shouted together: “No borders, no nations, and stop deportations!”
The chant is a bit of a head-scratcher. One can imagine some borders opening under the right circumstances, but a world without nations is likely not imminent. When it comes to deportations, though, the demonstrators are alluding to international law, which guarantees certain rights to refugees. One of these is the right to “non-refoulement,” or not being forced to return to their home countries when it would be dangerous to do so.
Advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have argued that EU countries are violating the rights of refugees. So, what rights to refugees have?
First, a definition. A refugee is different from a migrant, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. Refugees are forced to flee their own countries due to war or threat of persecution. The term "migrant," on the other hand, also includes those who leave in order to better their lives by seeking employment, education or other improved situations. Such people would continue to enjoy the protection of their own governments if they elected to return home.
According to international treaties, refugees are entitled to at least the same basic protections as any other foreigner who is a legal resident. These include the rights to:
- identity and travel documents
- freedom of movement within the territory
- freedom of religion
- access to the courts
- freedom from being punished for illegal entry
The 1951 convention continues to offer the most comprehensive codification of refugee rights, setting out each of the protections noted above. An amendment known as the 1967 Protocol expanded it to apply to displaced persons worldwide instead of only European refugees in the aftermath of World War II.
Other international documents outline protections for refugees specific to children and families. In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights labeled the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and stated it is therefore “entitled to protection by society and the State.” Accordingly, some countries also grant asylum to refugees’ dependent relatives.
Similarly, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that states should protect refugee children by helping trace their family members for family reunification.
Although 145 nations have signed the 1951 convention, not all countries always enforce it.
In Europe in particular, where 1.3 million asylum claims were received in 2015, human rights advocates have taken issue with the European Union deporting refugees to Turkey and failures to help ensure refugees’ safe passage across the Mediterranean. They have also chronicled the abuses refugees experience while detained in Hungarian prisons and at the hands of Turkish border guards. Several European countries have imposed restrictions on family reunification in an effort to limit the number of refugees.
Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have absorbed the vast majority of Syrian refugees, and the strain on their resources has been tremendous. These countries have avoided avoided granting work permits or providing education to refugee children, and there are also reports that refugees have been denied access to health care and other social services.
Because the power to determine refugee status lies with individual states rather than an international governing body, some states can close doors to asylum-seekers by determining they don’t fit the technical definition of refugee.
For example, a government might claim an individual is not persecuted for being a member of a particular social group or that he or she is not persecuted at all. By labeling individuals as migrants instead of refugees, states are able to send them back to their home countries, thus evading the non-refoulement principle.
Some states blatantly neglect refugee rights while others may be willing to assist refugees but simply lack the capacity to meet their needs, according to UNHCR. The gap between policy and practice presents, the agency recently concluded, both troubling challenges as well as “opportunities to strengthen and systematize” the global response to refugees in crisis.