Refugees: the Dreamed Return
Refugees Section Manager
Refugee is a term increasingly used in everyday language. The civil war in Syria is a major current example, but that definition is not new, as refugees have existed throughout the last century. I still remember the first time I heard the word stateless, and wondered is it possible that there are people without nationality when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1 establishes the right to a nationality? Hence one wonders when someone ceases to be a refugee. Don’t these rights proclaim to protect citizens? However, these are theories not real-life practices.
Article 1(A)(2) the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugee as a person who
“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.
This definition can help us to visualize the number of refugees that exist today. Lamentably, human beings are caught in extreme situations where they have no other solution but to flee. This is known as involuntary migration.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced from their homes by wars. The most alarming thing is that over half of them are children, the vast majority of whom spend their entire childhood in refugee camps. Whether refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless persons and asylum seekers, children are more likely to suffer abuse, neglect, exploitation, trafficking, or forced military recruitment. When a person goes to another country for humanitarian asylum it is a desperate measure for protection. Repatriation is bound by the 1951 Convention and host nations are obliged to give political asylum, although in practice this has not always been so.
While calculating the number of uprooted people in the world is a difficult task. Recent estimates put the total at 33,9 million. Of which 15,2 million are refugees, the highest level in the last decades. On the other hand, about 28,8 million2 are internally displaced, and the rest are other kinds of refugees fleeing poverty, famine, and environmental destruction.
We can classify them into five different types: an economic refugee is one who, by necessity, is forced to leave their country in search of a better opportunity. The health refugees are ones who move to another region because of disease, famine, and poverty. War refugees are those that have become displaced externally due to internal or external wars with other countries, ethnic groups, or social structures. These have increased significantly in the last century. Political refugees have been forced to flee their country because of their activism and ideals. The last (and therefore no less important) are environmental refugees, who escape from the effects of natural disasters caused each year in many countries because of climate change.
But if there is an affected nationality that stands out above other it is the Palestinian’s, because of the media coverage of the conflict and the ongoing political, social, and economic problem, this issue still continues. There are about 5 million refugees scattered in different camps throughout the Levant. The month of May witnesses the Nakba (Arabic النكبة, which means “catastrophe”) commemorating the Palestinian exodus because of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, where Palestinians were forced to leave their places of origin, becoming refugees for all generations since.
Resolution 194 says:
“resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations“3.
Unfortunately, many of these articles have not taken effect, and that is why even today Palestinians are still refugees without a date to return, as desired. This creates a sense of nostalgia.
The rights of refugees are irrevocable: the right to asylum, education, food, housing and medical aid. However, many of them do not enjoy these privileges, set forth at the 1951 Refugee Convention. Expat Palestinians living in Lebanon for example cannot access the health care system and can own property but they must apply for a permit if they wish to leave their camp. The continuous exodus of Palestinians fleeing from the war in Syria must endure a dual odyssey that makes them pay a fee (however insignificant it may seem) to get into a country that despises and blames them for the last Lebanese war. We must understand that all refugees from Syria, come from a two-year war that has claimed all their savings from work, their fight for survival and now they have nothing. In Iraq and Turkey they cannot get help because there are no UN agencies to cover them. In Jordan those without identification are returned to fighting in Syria and Egypt, receiving the same treatment as Syrian exiles.
On the other hand we have IDPs. For the most part, running for the same reasons as refugees, but they remain protected by their governments (sometimes the very reason for their flight) and they choose not leave their country of origin. IDPs retain all their rights, but not being refugees and remaining within the borders of their country, there is no agency to deal with them. This situation increases the danger in their flight, because often rebels and other forces of disorder attack the displaced. Where women and children are the most vulnerable to different types of violence, including sexual violence and malnutrition. UNHCR has expanded its mandate to protect some internally displaced populations, as only they have the help of local NGOs and international humanitarian aid. The number of IDPs in the world is estimated to be 32.4 million4 people, with half of them coming from Colombia, Iraq and Sudan.
Furthermore, the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons5 defines a stateless person as”any person who is not considered as a national by any State under its law“. That is, when a state has disappeared and another has not been created in its place, when they belong to an ethnic minority and the government refuses to give them the nationality, or when living in disputed territories of more than one country, they become part of one of the world’s most marginalized groups. This leads to a legal problem, because without a nationality they are unprotected by the law, right to the core of every citizen’s access to healthcare, education, etc. This does not apply to those who are under the protection of a United Nations Agency. Under this statute, the host states give them less freedom to practice religion and to provide religious instruction for their children. A chilling fact is the 12 million stateless people in the world, sometimes they are invisible populations impossible to identify. Again children are the most affected, as those born to stateless parents cannot obtain the nationality in the country of their birth. This means that generation after generation will live as stateless people, without any possibility of change in this fateful status.
It is true that without the help of agencies and NGOs that assist refugees every day, they could not survive. But let’s look at something different; that these agencies perpetuate the image of refugees, they help to engender this identity. Leaving many of them as refugees for life. Besides the many obstacles and suffering that must be overcome during his escape into exile, it does not end here. Many studies discuss the economic, emotional, and psychological factors that affect people uprooted from their homeland.
Refugees do not suffer torture as prisoners of war often do, but rather suffer other effects as hard as these. Many have lost loved ones to the effects of war; people have been dying of hunger or have been involved in attacks, many of whom are left physically disabled. Children who grow up involved in wars and revolutions are easy targets in future to become radicalized and want revenge. Humans are what we live. If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith, if they grow up with acceptance and friendship, they learn to love the world, if they live with tolerance, they learn to be patient, if they grow with criticism, they learn to condemn, if you live in a world hostility, they learn to fight. If we do not teach children the basic principles of loving and being loved, how do we intend that a growing child fleeing wrath and struggling to survive tomorrow will go on to love the world for art’s sake? Does the world care for them while giving them a gun and forcing them to kill?
The twentieth century is known for having created the greatest tragedy of our times, but the twentieth-first century has inherited this shameful scourge. History must learn from the mistakes of the past, but it seems, that we are doomed to repeat ourselves. Do not forget one thing and be aware: they are suffering today, but tomorrow it could very well be us.
1Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “(1) everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
2 Statistics published by UNHCR in 2012.
3 A/RES/194 (III). Article 11 of the United Nation General Assembly Resolution 194 created at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
4 Statistics estimates in 2012 by IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre).