Issue 7, January 2009
|Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and IDPs|
People who are forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict or fear of persecution may be refugees, asylum-seekers, or internally displaced persons (IDPs) and are treated differently from economic migrants.
Overall numbers of displaced persons had declined from 2001-2005, but has been rising for the last two years. (Source, United Nations)
A refugee, as defined by international law is:
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocols to the Convention, and the mandate of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) are the international instruments guiding who qualifies as a refugee, what legal protections they should expect, as well as the rights and services that should be afforded to them. Regional instruments inspired by these international regimes exist as well. Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its expansion in 1967 fall under a special mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Refugee protections also fall under obligations of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 13 stating that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own;” and Article 14 stating that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Asylum is the granting by a state, of protection on its territory to persons from another state who are fleeing persecution, or serious danger. An asylum seeker enters a country on the same premise as a refugee, but often goes through different channels to obtain permission to stay. Asylum-seekers, in many cases, are essentially refugees-in-waiting, often in limbo as their cases and status are pending.
Asylum for refugees and asylum-seekers encompasses a variety of elements:
Estimates of the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world vary because of the difficult nature of documenting people in crisis. People may enter and exit the refugee system, receive services informally, or be re-classified as economic migrants. Those who are considered primarily economic migrants are not deemed eligible for coverage under the UNHCR mandate, but undoubtedly some of these informally come under UN care. Some estimate that 80% of refugees are women and children.
Outcomes for refugees and asylum-seekers include:
Policies guiding the above outcomes vary by country. In the United States, which accepts the most applicants worldwide, the number of refugee and asylum-seekers who are to be accepted in any given year is determined by the President in consultation with the House and Senate. Figures may be adjusted in response to international emergencies and disasters. The application process requires proof of persecution, proof the applicant has no other country of option, evidence of some measure of economic support (often through a charity or NGO), and a medical exam. Proof of persecution must be via official documents, interviews, and/or witness testimony. Applicants must establish that they have been targeted for persecution personally, and are not just victims of widespread discrimination of a larger group or of general hardship.
An internally displaced person or IDP is a refugee/asylum-seeker who has not crossed a recognized international border, but is on the move for the same reasons. IDPs do not formally fall under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, but rather the UDHR and subsequent special international laws. However, there are many more IDPs in the world than refugees and they are often seen as the most vulnerable people on the move today. This is because many of them are displaced by civil conflict in sovereign nations, often conflicts the international community wants to avoid. The UNHCR has come, in recent years, to care for over one-half (13 million) of the 26 million IDPs living in 52 countries around the world. It is estimated that there are up to 25 million more IDPs in the world generated by natural disasters (those not fleeing conflict are not counted in official UN IDP numbers) for a total of 51 million worldwide.
Persons of Concern to the UNHCR may be refugees, IDPs, returned persons, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. The UNHCR estimates that nearly 32 million people in the world today are entitled to its services, up from 20.8 million in 2006. Another 4.6 million Palestinian refugees are served by the UNRWA.
(Definitions: IOM, UNHCR)
Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and IDPs in the World Today
Inclusive data on refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs are extraordinarily difficult to obtain because people enter and exit the system or change status along the way. Some start as IDPs, become refugees, and then tragically, IDPs again. Many get stuck in triage awaiting full award of official status. Many are unofficial; others die between fleeing and arriving in a country of asylum or an IDP camp. It is even difficult to determine who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant – most refugees come from poor countries where the distinction between pushes and pulls, voluntary and forced movement, and political and economic motivators can be highly arbitrary.
Using available figures from the UN and others, Human Rights Watch has estimated that, in the 21st century, nearly 80% of the world’s refugees come from just ten areas: Afghanistan, Angola, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, and Sudan. Other top locations include Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. Palestinians are the oldest and largest recognized refugee population, and are thought to make up more than one-fourth of the world’s official refugees, residing in and around camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. The number of people seeking refuge or asylum in developed countries increased by 10% in 2007, the first increase seen in 5 years. The majority of this increase is attributed to a rise in people fleeing Iraq.
Asia hosts 45% of all refugees, followed by Africa (30%), Europe (19%) and North America (5%). Geographic proximity plays a large role in where refugees end up, as do former colonial ties. For example, many refugees and migrants found in France hail from former French African countries. Over half of all IDPs are in African countries, many in Angola, Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other IDPs are on the move within Balkan countries, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Sri Lanka.
The Dilemma of Mixed Migratory Patterns
All types of migrants often travel the same routes, at the same times. There can be ethnic, social, and political tension between them; there is often conflict over resources and access to humanitarian assistance. They all have the tendency to come into conflict with native populations along the journey and all are vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers. Not surprisingly, it is often extraordinarily problematic for officials in transit and destination countries to determine who is eligible for refugee assistance and asylum, and who must be treated as an illegal economic migrant. As was reported in a recent UNHCR report Refugee or Migrant, along many dangerous migration routes, refugees often die along with other migrants; and those that do make it are often summarily detained or deported along with illegal migrants without having the opportunity to seek asylum. This can be seen in places where some of the most desperate people in the world are on the move in the world today, usually fleeing from a combination of persecution and poverty:
Overall, more asylum applications and refugee grants are being denied than in the past, and most believe that more illegal refugees and asylum seekers are on the move than ever before, despite a drop in official applications from the 1980s and 1990s. The major contractions have taken place in Europe (as characterized by policy reforms contributing to Fortress Europe) and in post-911 America. The US has traditionally taken more asylum seekers than all other countries combined, but this trend is beginning to erode in the 21st century.
Many refugees and asylum seekers are denied because they are confused with (or cynically categorized as) economic migrants. Ironically, others get foisted into IDP channels. Human rights organizations point out that an increasingly greater number of countries of potential asylum are exercising what is known as the “internal flight alternative” where refugees are concerned. This means that applications for asylum can be denied if a person is deemed to have the alternative of fleeing to another area of his own country. This places many in the IDP system which traditionally provides lesser rights, protections, and assistance. Most experts agree that if a person is in fear for his life in his own country, simply relocating within that country’s borders is unlikely to afford him protection.
The Relevancy and Sufficiency of Existing Refugee, Asylum, and IDP Regimes
In an extreme example of the larger disconnect between the norms and policies guiding the regulation of human migration, refugees and asylum seekers are granted rights and protections by international law, but not necessarily by individual states. Under the purview of accepted universal human rights law, people have the right to leave their countries of origin or residency, but other laws at the nation-state level limit their ability to enter or seek safe haven in a country of their choice. Thus, what many may assume are internationally accepted refugee norms are unevenly implemented and enforced by sovereign states.
Not only are they unevenly implemented and enforced officially by sovereign states, but they are also erratically implemented and enforced within those sovereign states at the discretion of individual immigration employees and border guards. Immigration personnel are often poorly trained; few are bi-lingual and able to fully understand the plight of a refugee who may look like an economic migrant. Some, like airline employees, were never intended to play the critical roles that they do at points of entry.
In general, experts remind us that most international laws in this area were originally designed for WWII refugees displaced by war and seeking protection, resettlement or voluntary repatriation. Yet, most refugees today are not fleeing clear-cut international conflicts, but rather are the victims of a wide variety of civil, ethnic, religious, political and environmental conflicts, many of which are internal matters within sovereign states. The existing refugee regime is not, many feel, sufficient to handle the many gray areas, and much less the exploding numbers of current day refugee crises.
Christina Boswell has written that the current international refugee regime (norms and institutions) puts what she calls modern “liberal universalist” democracies in a particular bind. On one hand, popular destination societies for refugees and asylum seekers like the US and UK generally adhere to the principle that “all humans are morally equal” and deserve to be treated as such. However, these same societies are also inevitably buffeted by nationalistic sentiments: what she calls “welfare nationalism” or the “claim of citizens to a privileged standard of socioeconomic welfare;” and/or “ethnocentric nationalism,” or the argument that cultural integrity must take priority over humanitarian impulses. The fact that these countries are democracies means that politicians often have no choice but to take these nationalistic concerns into account in combative electoral cycles involving right-wing anti-immigration parties. The result is a politicized or selective commitment to universal human (refugee) rights on the ground in popular countries of potential asylum.
The Special Case of Iraqi Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and IDPs
The case of Iraq is of particular concern to the international community today. Currently, there are 2 million Iraqi refugees living outside the country and another nearly 2 million displaced within it. Some of these became displaced in the 20th century as a result of the Iran-Iraq wars and the first Gulf war; others by the 2003 American invasion and on-going conflict. These include Iraqi citizens, foreign nationals who had been residing in the country and/or working in the oil industry, and Palestinian refugees who had already been displaced one or more times in the region. According to the Brookings Institution, while total asylum-seekers actually decreased 10% globally in 2005-2006, Iraqi asylum-seekers increased by 77%. Figures indicate that 15-22% of the Iraqi population is considered displaced internationally or internally; and Iraqis account for the most asylum applications to the world’s 50 industrialized countries today.
Many that have left the war-torn country are among its best and brightest – doctors, engineers, teachers – and their absence is seen as severely hindering the reconstruction and recovery of the fledgling democracy. Moreover, the prospects of their return are grim. Even when the country is certified “safe” for repatriation on a national scale (which currently it is not by international NGOs and the UNHCR), the ethnic and sectarian reconfiguration that has taken place in neighborhoods and regions may make return impossible for many. The UN has reported that up to 70% of those that do attempt to return become IDPs, deterring the repatriation of the majority. The potential result for the country, in the words of Roger Cohen writing for the New York Times, is “an Iraq inhabited by a rump and radicalized population, its elite in permanent diaspora, and the best hope of rebuilding snuffed out with that scattered intelligentsia.”
The US is a primary desired destination of those applying for permanent resettlement out of the region. However, the US takes very few of these applicants for permanent resettlement. Brookings estimates that of the 24,000 Iraqis who have been identified by UNHCR and Middle Eastern embassies as eligible for US resettlement, only 6,000 have been admitted. By contrast, Sweden has accepted between 92% and 98% of all eligible Iraqi refugee/asylum applicants.
The EU joins the US on the low end of asylum grants, and as a result earns the approbation of the human rights community. In the EU, the problem is linked to larger asylum procedures for the region in which applicants seeking asylum in any EU nation must be processed in the first EU country they enter. For Iraqis, this is typically Greece which they reach via Turkey. However, Greece’s record on treatment of Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers has been abysmal and includes detention, deportment (refoulement) and dumping on Turkish shores. In terms of application processing, the admittance rate is nearly zero. The result is a bottleneck of Iraqi migrants (and others seeking admission to EU countries for a variety of reasons) that many feel not only violates refugee conventions, but human rights laws as well.
Most of those fleeing Iraq end up in neighboring countries, primarily Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon placing a financial and social burden on these countries that are already home to (and suffering from the burden of) many Palestinian refugees. The fact that some of these are themselves displaced Iraqi Palestinian refugees further complicates the situation. Most experts see these countries as providing heroic sanctuary when few others are willing to do so. Syria is already suffering from a drought, as well as a relative lack of international support because of its association with Iran. Lebanon is similarly wracked with many of its own problems, including domestic political intrigue and a recent war with Israel that diminished its Western support. Ironically, Iraqi refugees have the potential to represent a “brain gain” for their host countries, as many migrants are highly skilled and educated. However, a combination of ethnic/sectarian tensions and the nontransferable nature of many refugees’ credentials and licenses relegate them to underclass status.
Moreover, Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers face significant hurdles in achieving resettlement because much of the world is unsympathetic to their plight, believing that the United States should bear responsibility for them. Growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East contributes to this backlash. See the Human Rights Watch website for a report detailing the special plight of Iraqi refugees and IDPs, including detainment in transit countries, bottlenecking in Greece and Turkey in transit to the EU, and re-foulement.
Other Troubling Modern Trends
Human Rights Watch and other NGOs such as the International Rescue Commission and Refugees International have noted a regression today in how traditional recipient countries treat refugees and asylum seekers. Ironically, many of these countries in North America, Europe, and Australia were the original architects of the official international refugee and human rights regime. Increasingly, entry and settlement is refused in favor of 3rd country asylum or support for international camps in neighboring countries. Detainments on counterterrorism charges have been reported based on country of origin alone. Many are being turned away if the host country deems that they could be settled internally in their home countries, even though human rights protections are not as rigorous and capacity is often low for IDPs. The result is an increasing number of “stateless people” who fear or have been denied repatriation, and are awaiting or have been denied asylum. Camps that were never meant to be permanent are now home to generations of displaced people who have little hope of return or re-settlement.
It seems to some that traditional host countries are cynically putting the onus on neighboring states with less capacity to deal with asylum seekers. This is the case in Europe, where the burden for processing applications for EU asylum is increasingly falling to countries on the region’s southern and eastern border. With EU law mandating that asylum and other residency applications to the EU as a whole be processed by the first EU country reached in transit, many believe wealthy Northern and Western European countries are deferring responsibility to states like Greece, Malta, and Spain who cannot or do not handle the applications efficiently or even, in some cases, humanely.
Another trend on the radar of watchdog groups is that of tension between established immigrant communities and newcomers, many of them refugees. This has been the case in South Africa where desperate Zimbabwean refugees fleeing the collapse of their own state have met with resistance from other immigrants and “habitual residents” as well as from natives.
All this is occurring against the backdrop of a worldwide increase in the push factors that create forced migrants in the first place – civil conflict and climate-related disasters. The current global recession is expected to only worsen the plight of LDCs and to push millions into poverty and “forced” mobility of one kind or another. Distinguishing between different types of forced migrants, many believe, is only going to get more difficult.