World Refugee Day – Forgotten, Exposed and Stranded: The Plight Continues
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On the occasion of World Refugee Day, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) warns that refugees continue to see their rights violated by regimes both in the North and the South of the Mediterranean.
The drastic changes that have swept the political and social landscape of the Euro-Mediterranean region in recent years have left thousands of refugees in their wake. In times of economic trouble, of democratic transition, and of social upheaval, the obligation to protect these refugees is often brushed aside. As a consequence, many refugees end up stranded in a no man’s land, exposed to persecution, ill treatment and xenophobia, and having little or no protection to ensure their basic rights are guaranteed.
In the wake of the transitions in Tunisia and Libya, thousands of refugees continue to live in a state of limbo. In the Choucha refugee camp located on the Tunisian border with Libya, nearly 3000 sub-Saharan African refugees, many of them labour migrants-turned-refugees who fled Libya during the uprising in 2011, have been left stranded for over a year. Western countries have, until now, only accepted to re-settle a fraction of them, and the rest are unable to return to their country of origin or to Libya, for fear of persecution and torture. In Tunisia, where an asylum system has yet to be put in place, there is little – if any – future for them.
At the same time, the uprisings have offset waves of new refugees: while the world’s attention has turned, rightfully so, towards the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, the exodus of Syrian refugees into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan is taking on increasingly worrying proportions. The influx has highlighted the weakness of countries in the region in dealing with refugees: neither Jordan nor Lebanon have ratified the Convention relating to the status of Refugees, nor put in place a national asylum system. The Syrian refugees, but also the Iraqis who have come before them, are living without any official rights or guarantee of protection, left vulnerable to the arbitrariness of the authorities and relying on the charity of local populations and help of civil society. Several organisations, in addition to the UNHCR, have warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in the region if the crisis in Syria continues.
In the backdrop of these newest waves, it should not be forgotten that the region is already home to two of the most protracted refugee populations in the world: the Sahrawis, of whom the majority still live in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria; and the Palestinians, of whom over half a million continue to live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, while other refugee populations, namely from sub-Saharan Africa, continue to live in precarious conditions in most – if not all – of the south and eastern Mediterranean region.
Internal to the EU is another worrying trend: the increased criminalisation of refugees and use of detention. In Europe, administrative detention of refugees seeking asylum has increasingly become the rule, rather than the exception. This is often despite the fact that they have not committed any crime to justify such a restriction of their freedom of movement, while the Geneva Convention prohibits states from penalising refugees for irregularly entering a country.
But this is not only unique to Europe: in Israel, a new law criminalising all irregular migrants as infiltrators was adopted in January and effectively enforced at the beginning of June. Some of these migrants, including refugees, can be detained for a minimum of three years. In some cases, they can be held indefinitely. In Libya thousands of sub-Saharan African refugees were captured during the uprising against Qaddafi and are being detained in prisons and makeshift detention centres by different militia groups. Many of them have been tortured and, with the transitional government unable to control the entire country, their lives are increasingly at risk.
Often, among those detained are those who belong to extremely vulnerable groups, such as women and their children, as well as unaccompanied minors, whose rights are not sufficiently protected. Europe is not spared: In Greece, where thirty detention centres are to be built, authorities rarely take into consideration standards such as the Guidelines for the Treatment of Unaccompanied children applying for asylum; in the United Kingdom, several minors have been assessed and unjustly detained as adults despite telling authorities that they were under the age of 18.
In a similar vein, the particular vulnerability of women to gendered-based violence and gender-related violence continues to be seen as an insufficient ground for asylum by most countries. All too often, this violence has been interpreted as being a personal or domestic issue rather than a reflection of persecution women face by virtue of being women and because they are women. Where protection systems are weak or non-existent, women and girl refugees continue to constitute a particularly vulnerable group as they are often forced into prostitution and human trafficking in order to survive – a fact often overlooked by countries offering re-settlement and asylum.
These worrying tendencies are clear reflections of a desire by refugee-hosting states to hurriedly overlook the particular vulnerabilities of certain refugees, and, increasingly, brand all refugees as potential criminals.
The externalisation of EU borders, moreover, is making it significantly more difficult for refugees to reach EU shores. Policies implemented to “manage” migration flows disproportionately focus on “the fight against illegal migration” and security concerns, often at the detriment of the lives of refugees. Cooperation agreements made with neighbouring countries effectively hinder refugees from being able to access the protection to which they are entitled.
On the occasion of World Refugee Day, the EMHRN resolutely affirms that when states forget their obligations towards refugees, it is the duty of civil society and ordinary citizens to remind them of it to make that the rights of the most vulnerable are protected. “In the South, as in the North, democracy is dependent on the guarantee of rights of every individual – not just citizens of the country in question,” declared Michel Tubiana, President of the EMHRN. “Guaranteeing the rights of refugees should therefore not be seen as something optional or secondary, but rather as an integral part of a democratic and inclusive society.”