The very first article of the United Nations Charter states that a key “purpose and principle” of the world body is that of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” But sadly, the UN has not always lived up to this noble ideal.
Amidst the news about drastic cuts to the World Food Program’s (WFP) support for Syrian refugees, it’s important to recall that WFP’s programs in other parts of the world have also been scaled back. For instance, in November, WFP halved food rations for the nearly half a million refugees living in camps in Kenya. The danger is not only that these refugees may go hungry, but also that they may be forced to return home before it’s safe to do so.
Earlier this year, I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a search for some urban refugees. Although urban refugees are not officially recognised by the government of Tanzania, some organisations which work with the urban refugee population, such as Asylum Access, estimate that there may be over 10,000 in the city.
Many of these refugees fled their countries of origin during the Great Lakes crises of the 1990s, with some Congolese especially arriving more recently having fled renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In early 2014, during peace talks facilitated by the United Nations and the Arab League, the Syrian government and opposition groups reached an agreement to allow some civilians to evacuate the city of Homs after being trapped for more than a year and a half. They also agreed to the delivery of desperately-needed aid. Food supplies had drastically depleted inside the city in the previous months, and families had resorted to eating wild plants and small amounts of insect-infested grains.
In the center of Erbil, northern Iraq, just next to a highway overpass, we met Yezin and his family – refugees from the fighting in neighboring Syria. Nasser himself didn’t get up to greet us. He had been wounded in a mortar attack on his Syrian hometown of Aleppo. The field surgery he had received left a metal plate in his leg that doesn’t allow him to stand or walk on his own any longer. He and his family of seventeen are now living in an abandoned construction lot in Erbil, where it has been hard for humanitarian agencies to find and help them.
When I met Amir two years ago in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, he had just graduated with a degree in Physics from Sittwe University. He was a fluent English speaker and planned to pursue a career as an engineer. Amir lived in Aung Mingalar, the only neighborhood in the capital city of Sittwe where the Rohingya still maintained a residence after 140,000 had been driven out of the city by mobs assisted by the police.
"Thailand’s pledge to repatriate 100,000 Burmese refugees sparks concern.” “Refugees fear forced return to Myanmar.” “Thai and Burmese armies to discuss refugee repatriation in August.” According to these recent news reports, the 140,000 refugees from Myanmar who are currently exiled in neighboring Thailand are about to go home, whether they like it or not.
Refugees International traveled to Myanmar’s Kayin State to test the validity of such assertions, and found the reality of the situation to be quite different.
The humanitarian situation in Iraq is once again deteriorating. The siege of Amirli, the humanitarian airdrops to Sinjar – with people so desperate to get out that they fled into Syria – and now Western and Arab airstrikes, have kept all eyes on this tumultuous part of the Middle East.
Since a wave of violence displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya in June 2012, RI has visited Myanmar four times to document their humanitarian situation, publicize their persecution, and demand that the international community pursue a remedy for them as part of the normalization of relations with the Myanmar government. Now RI is returning to the country to push again for progress.
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In just 15 words, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights makes it very clear that people whose life and liberty are at risk in their homeland should be able to leave it and find safe refuge in another state.
But as with many other rights that are spelled out in the Universal Declaration, the right to seek asylum is routinely denied to many people who should be able to benefit from it.