Asylum seekers and refugees ~ Definition and definers

Asylum seekers and refugees ~ Defenition and definers

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A well known aphorism tells us that the validity of a definition depends to a great extent on the perspectives employed by those who use the definition. This has given the objective decision-making of the UNHCR a great deal of trouble, above all during the Cold War era between 1945 and 1989. A bipolar world generally saw the political and defensive confrontation of the Soviet Bloc and the capitalist West as a meeting of good and evil. There was a political imperative serving the geopolitical interests of the United States and its allies to ‘save’ as many as possible from perdition. There was a moral duty on the part of a Free World to salvage refugees. Dollars flowed to subsidise the practical provision of liberating channels and contacts. Funds and oratorical campaigning supported liberating agencies such as the US Escapee Program: they did not underwrite the work of UNHCR but sidelined what was taken to be too neutral an institution. It was the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 that saw on the part of the major powers the beginnings of a shift from overt strategic designs countering threat to more concern for the hapless and the oppressed. Both UNHCR and the West could resort to large-scale relief programmes, stepping aside from narrower political criteria. There was, naturally, a political, ideological component in the saving of Hungarians, but more importantly a consensus to launch a major humanitarian undertaking to protect refugees whose validity was incontestable. Henceforth, UNHCR felt able to assume a more vigorous profile and move out of suspicion and near-penury into ‘good offices’ initiatives that brought it commendation and material support. Wherever possible, repatriation of refugees was resorted to, depending upon an assessment of whether circumstances in a particular country had improved sufficiently to guarantee ‘safe return’.

It is not likely that any United Nations agency can totally avoid engagements in the political sphere. The mere existence of refugees is the result of political upheaval somewhere and, following recognition of relief need (which may be disputed by an unstable country), there will be moves to rescue those in danger. It has become all too clear that humanitarian work cannot act as substitute for political action. Often this leads to Geneva directly standing up to states which will not risk their general interests being impugned. Hallmarks of so much UNHCR work over the years are fine-tuned political sensitivity, ready mediation in difficult circumstances, and a readiness to convince governments that certain solutions are fair and practicable. Where the Cold War years bisected political allegiances fundamentally into East and West, more recent multipolar decades have presented those who would legitimate their efforts for refugees with a host of questions. How far is it possible for external pressures to reduce persecution within a sovereign state? This helped to bring about the crumbling of apartheid, but Amnesty International has for many years been wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of helping an individual-in-need from the outside. The field staff of UNHCR would not want the world to regard them as workers in a soup kitchen. Inevitably, even with the original 1951 definition, now somewhat refined, there are judgements to be made and held in context.

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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