Asylum seekers and refugees ~ Broadening definition

Asylum seekers and refugees ~ Broadening definition

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Events in the later 1950s and 1960s, when many countries were rent by East-West tensions, political coups, social and religious volatility and inter-ethnic strife, soon pointed to a need for broader definitions to take account of multiple menaces to human rights. The original and basic definition was taken rather further in 1967 in a Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. This was related to the 1951 Convention in spirit and format but was an independent instrument. A statement from UNHCR itself affirmed that the Protocol ‘fundamentally transformed the 1951 Convention from a document fixed in a specific moment in history into a human rights instrument which addresses contemporary forms of human rights abuse which are properly called persecution’. Certainly the Protocol stressed that the protective regimes of 1951 and 1967 should not
be subject to geographical or territorial restrictions or any time restriction but were, in essence, universal in character and operation. The explanation of this ruling is that the Convention drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War had limited its protective scope mainly to persons who became refugees before 1 December 1951 and as a result of events that had taken place in Europe. Fifteen years later, there was a need to make Convention provisions applicable to the growing numbers of displaced persons everywhere. In every sense, signatory states (States Parties) must undertake undivided cooperation with UNHCR, given that the enactments of 1951 and 1967 were primarily concerned with protection rather than material assistance. (Once more there is a ruling here which was to be overtaken by the sheer scale of material wants of hordes in flight-UNHCR, in liaison with other United Nations agencies and non governmental organisations, simply had to ensure that refugees remained alive).

Very likely by the mid-1960s such a Protocol was easier to see accepted than in the confusing aftermath of a recent world war. Most major refugee flows were now in the developing world rather than in a lacerated, post-conflict Europe. Decolonisation had brought new states into being and such communities were anxious to stabilise erosion of population and to bring into being schemes for relief for their displaced and disadvantaged people. The industrial states of the developed world were now envisaging programmes for addressing human rights violations on a larger scale. In respect of their evident ‘conscience’, it has to be said that within such states there were now active and vocal champions of refugee need. Perhaps influential too in bringing into being a more evident public concern for dislodged people was the growth of a civil rights movement in the United States undermining exclusionary practices and calling for a new deal for the world’s uprooted. In due course, and by 2003, 145 nations have acceded to the Protocol and now find themselves pledged to a very firm obligation to cooperate with UNHCR in exercising its function of offering a particular individual refugee guaranteed protection, the safeguarding of human rights, a means of transit, and altogether the assurance of an accessible and safe refuge. Signatory states were now given the task of keeping the UN Secretary-General informed as to the extent they were implementing the Protocol through laws, regulations, decrees and actual fieldwork with refugees. Above all, the term recognised refugee (the one to be used) had now been given a widely enhanced significance.

Meanings framed in this manner lay upon signatory states an obligation to offer a particular individual protection, the safeguarding of fundamental human rights, the means of transit and the assurance of an accessible and safe refuge. Most importantly, the recognised refugee will expect and be offered a permanent place of safety. Nevertheless, it has been argued, the refugee claimant becomes subject to decisions by states which may rate their own political agendas higher than humanitarian concerns. There is the point, too, that expanding the definition of ‘refugee’ to include individuals from other endangered groups brings the risk that governments will shut the door on all groups.

What, though, should be done to identify and protect the increasing numbers rendered vulnerable and hapless when political happenings on a grand scale make normal life impossible for an individual, such as has been the case in regions of Africa, in the Balkans and in much of Central and South America? Members of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) came together in 1969 to extend the 1951 definition of refugee, for they were well aware of the unfortunate consequences of civil instability following decolonisation in their new lands. A legitimate understanding of the term ‘refugee’ would be any person who ‘owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order…is compelled to leave his habitual place of residence’. This broader formulation referring to circumstances threatening ‘life, physical integrity or liberty’ clearly had in mind express provision for persons forced to flee situations of generalised violence and in many ways constituted a mechanism of dealing with en masse refugee movements without individual screening. In north and east Africa at this time there was something of the order of a million people evicted forcibly from their homes. (Again, in later years such movements were to become increasingly common, raising ethical and logistical dilemmas for UNHCR.) A consequence of the expanded definition was that many developing countries anxious to help the oppressed became saddled with a disproportionate burden coping with numbers, material needs and funding. Particularly in Africa, newly independent nations regarded any individual as living within the context of a family as well as a community. A refugee had a responsibility to discharge kinship duties and to maintain family unity if at all possible. Thus, all family members, whether together or separated, should share in a refugee’s valid status on a prima facie basis. This unity was stressed in the Protocol more strongly than in the earlier Convention. If the family were separated, there was to be an expectation that they could be reunited. Refugee definitions on the OAU agenda appear to have had in mind collective concepts more than the rights of a lone individual. In some respects, rights in the developed world appear to be based on the concept of autonomous persons giving priority to individual, political and civic rights, where in non-Western traditions there is more emphasis on economic and social entitlement, family obligations and community duties. In any case, whatever the distinctiveness we may give to rights and duties, it is in poor, illiterate societies, especially, that force majeure, in the shape of war, starvation and environmental disaster, precipitates refugees.

Book International Law that use in this reference :

David J, Whittaker, 2006. Asylum seekers and refugees in the contemporary World. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York
international law reference

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