Refugee Rights in 2018
Refugees need meaningful change
The UN Global Compact on Refugees, initiated by the General Assembly, failed to deliver meaningful change for 25 million refugees. In July, after 18 months of consultations, the final text of the Compact, which aimed to improve the international community’s response to mass forcible displacement, was notably unambitious: a shameful blueprint for responsibility shirking.
The Compact will not change the situation for Rohingya refugees newly arrived in Bangladesh, or a generation of Somali youth born in refugee camps in Kenya, or refugees stuck in illegal and devastating limbo on the island of Nauru for the past five years. For Sub-Saharan Africa, now hosting 31% of the global refugee population, it will provide no relief.
Refugees voices go unheard
Few of the world’s refugees will have heard of the Global Compact. Neither will they have been consulted on its process or content or involved in the negotiations. The Compact set out to be a comprehensive, all-encompassing collection of best practice but any momentum towards concrete commitments, mandatory requirements or bold action was crushed in the early rounds of discussion. Human rights and refugee law obligations were largely absent from the “zero” draft. Even fundamentals like the principle of non-refoulement and the right to seek asylum were omitted. Climate change as a cause of forced displacement was also dropped and there was little space for refugee voices to be institutionalized in any mechanisms. What remained was a strong bias towards states’ interests rather than refugees’ rights.
States make severe cuts to resettlement quotas
Far more outrageous, however, were certain initiatives that states took outside the Compact negotiations. State actions this year have already shown that even the feeble ambitions recommended in the Compact are not likely to be abided by. Ahead of the text’s finalization, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reported a 54% drop in resettlement placements: 75,188 compared to 163,206 in the previous year due to a decline in resettlement quotas provided for by states. This is significantly less than the 1.2 million places UNHCR say are needed.
The US government cut its refugee admissions quota to 45,000, their lowest since the domestic Refugee Act was enacted in 1980, and apparently plan to decrease it to 30,000 in 2019. Amnesty International, meanwhile, documented the catastrophic and irreparable harm caused to thousands of asylum-seekers by the Trump administration’s border and immigration policies. Policies included separating and detaining children and families, violating both US and international law.
In Europe, several states forcibly returned increasing numbers of Afghans who had not obtained refugee status or other forms of international protection, despite Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation, and amidst UN reports of record high civilian deaths. Amnesty International documented the risk that serious human rights violations and generalized violence pose to refugees returned to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, during 2018 Finland forcibly deported 75 people; Germany returned 366; the Netherlands returned around 28; and Norway returned 15. This was in addition to the almost 10,000 Afghans forcibly returned from Europe between 2015 and 2016.
European governments also failed to reform asylum rules, or agree on a common system of shared responsibility and co-operation for protecting and assisting refugees within Europe. As a result, frontline states continued to shoulder a disproportionate responsibility for processing asylum applications. Despite the considerable drop in numbers arriving in Europe, the EU and individual member states continued to advance externalization practices aimed at keeping people on the move well away from European borders, shifting the responsibility onto governments in Africa and elsewhere.
Refugees and migrants trapped in Libya bore the brunt of European policies, policies which supported the Libyan authorities in preventing departures and intercepting people risking their lives to reach safety and a better life in Europe. During the summer, over 1,200 people were reported dead or missing at sea in the central Mediterranean. Thousands were intercepted and pulled back to Libya to face arbitrary detention, violence, abuse and exploitation.
The EU/Turkey deal, a benchmark for responsibility shirking, led to thousands of refugees and migrants being confined in overcrowded and squalid EU-sponsored camps on the Greek islands. Women and girls were particularly in danger, facing harassment, sexual violence and other abuses.
In Israel, the government started 2018 with the publication of its Procedure for Deportation to Third Countries, under which single Sudanese and Eritrean men who had not applied for asylum by the end of 2017, or whose application was denied, would be served with deportation notices to either their country of origin, or to two unnamed "third countries", widely understood to be Uganda and Rwanda. Those refusing to leave would be detained until they agreed to do so; otherwise they would be transferred forcibly. Court proceedings halted implementation, but did not stop Israel’s attempts to pass its responsibility for these refugees and asylum-seekers to Uganda, which already hosts 1.3 million refugees, the largest refugee population in Africa, and one of the top five worldwide. The procedure violates Israel’s legal obligation of non-refoulement.
Citizen activism seeking solutions
While governments abdicate their responsibilities, citizen activism and advocacy has raised its profile. But governments around the world are using an increasing variety of methods to hamper the work of people and organizations assisting migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Administrative, criminal and other laws are some of the measures employed to deter, constrain, prosecute and punish those providing such assistance. From the seizure of NGO search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean to the detention of a journalist investigating the Australian government’s abuses of refugees on Nauru, activism for refugee and migrant rights has become a precarious and potentially criminal affair.
However, the Global Compact’s final draft mentions complementary pathways for refugees to reach safe third countries, recommending that states “establish private or community sponsorship programmes that are additional to regular resettlement, including community-based programmes”, something Amnesty International has long advocated for.
Some countries made a start this year. In July, Canada, the UK, Spain, Argentina, Ireland and New Zealand announced their endorsement of the concept of community-based refugee sponsorship which places individuals and communities at the heart of organizing the arrival, welcome and integration of refugee families in third countries. Meanwhile, New Zealand announced a commitment to increase refugee quotas from 1,000 to 1,500 places.
In an increasingly hostile world, solidarity and direct action by communities and individuals may be the way to strengthen everyone’s right to seek asylum and live in dignity. Governments should celebrate and follow the example of their citizens rather than threaten and target them. Now negotiations have ended, let’s hope more governments see the Global Compact as a starting point for positive change, rather than an end to it.