The lack of human rights in refugee camps

Lately certain readings have got me thinking again about the idea of refugee camps and the access the residents of such camps have to fundamental human rights. These camps are most often overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), who have registered over 50 million displaced persons or refugees worldwide. Nearly 90% of these registered persons are living within designated refugee camps.

Refugee camps are precarious places, set up in a state of emergency with the intention of being temporary,  leaving the residents constantly unsure of their future. The goal of the refugee camp is to provide displaced persons with temporary shelter, food, and protection until they can safely return to their homes. In practice, many refugee camps are places of immense insecurity where malnutrition and disease runs rampant that remain lasting over many years. Some refugees have lived in their respective camps now for over 60 years, and have raised children and grandchildren within them, who also retain the refugee status. Their rights are limited, and they remain unsure of their future.

Refugees in camps are often seen by the outside world as essentially non-persons in non-places, whose location is not even worthy of recognition on a local map. They have often fled in a hurried situation, without all their legal papers or documents, making travel or relocation almost impossible. This lack of documentation also makes appeals for asylum in places like Canada nearly unattainable. These camps are often located on the outskirts of towns, away from borders and other communities. Some camps have gates, security personnel and barbed wire fences to restrict the movement of refugees outside of the camp and to provide a sense of security for those living inside.  Many of those who have fled their country of origin are essentially illegals in their new countries of residence, and thus unable to work, freely move, or have any political voice. Instead they must idly wait as an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and uselessness take over.

Considering these camps are often set up by the United Nations, the body responsible for creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is startling that the basic human rights of these people are not being met in these supposed “humanitarian” situations. Going through the rights guaranteed by the UDHR, many refugees do not have:

– the right to recognition before the law

– the right to life, liberty and security of person

– the right to equal dignity

– the right to not to be held in arbitrary detention

– the right to freedom of movement and residence

– the right to leave any country and return to their own country

– the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution

– the right to nationality

– the right to own property

– the right to take part in government

– the right to work, to free choice of employment

– the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families

… and this list of  rights denied to many refugees does sometimes go on.

Why is this so? And what can be done to change this? How can the UN overcome the hypocrisy of one the one hand, claiming to help these populations, while at the same time, ensuring that their rights are denied, sometimes for decades?

The way the camps are so often spontaneously set up makes the problem of access to rights one that is difficult to overcome, but I think it is necessary for the international community to begin to give this matter serious weight. National borders and immigration laws also become an issue as these populations are denied access to work and have little possibility of any legal economic activity. Some NGOs have come into camps to help provide crafting opportunities or small loans for small business start-up so as to give the residents a sense of purpose, but it is not enough. The vast majority remain completely dependent on handouts, without any other possibility, since they have no access to money or the networks necessary to support themselves.

These refugees ARE capable and we need to start seeing them in this light instead of merely as victims. They need to have access to the rights they sorely deserve so that they can give their own lives purpose. They need access to education. Access to employment. Access to land. Access to government. They need to be seen as persons with dignity who are fully capable of living their own lives. They have had misfortune in their lives, but that does not negate their abilities. Forcing them into camps that can last decades, where they are denied of basic fundamental rights does little to promote anything other than the idea of victimhood.

Since these camps are internationally bureaucratized, it is a global concern. These camps must be restructured to provide their residents with rights. Without access to these rights, their future becomes nearly hopeless. With these rights, their future becomes truly possible. I think for the most part the intentions of these camps are good, but to be able to truly provide  “humanitarian” assistance, they must be restructured. Otherwise, we merely are creating a larger problem in the long run.

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