By Sooyoung Hu
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is a key document that defines the term ‘refugee’, outlines rights for refugees, and keeps States accountable for their actions. Important requirements to become a refugee include: facing a well-rounded fear of persecution, seeking asylum or refugee status in the first possible venue, and receiving a fair hearing from a person who is legally qualified (Lect, Nov.8). States have to uphold the non-refoulement principle-the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country where they face serious persecution (UNHCR, 2010). The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees form the legal framework. Although the legal framework provides a consistent set of requirements in determining who is a refugee and holds states liable for protecting the rights of refugees, violations occur.
How effective is the legal framework (and its enforcement) for refugees in protecting their human rights? It seems that the enforcement turns increasingly ineffective and inappropriate in safeguarding refugees’ rights. Let’s examine it on a comparative example of countries such as Australia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and China (to name but few) that repeatedly fail to uphold the principle of non-refoulement, commit human rights abuses, and find ways to refuse accepting refugees.
Down-under or upside-down
Despite being a signatory to the 1951 Convention, Australia defies the non-refoulement principle, which violates refugee law. For instance, the boat Tampa rescued Afghanistan asylum-seekers who were on board a sinking Indonesian fishing boat (Lect, Nov.8). Although the closest port of rescue was on Christmas Island in Australia, the Australian government refused to allow Tampa to land any of the asylum seekers (McKay, Thomas, Kneebone, 2011). Australian Prime Minister John Howard was determined to limit the uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals and unauthorized asylum seekers in the country (UN: Australia, 2001). Over half of Australia’s population viewed asylum seekers as a deviant social group coming for a better life rather than helpless people fleeing persecution. This is because refugees are seen as exploiters of Australia’s welfare system (McKay et.al., 2011). In the end, the passengers were taken to camps in Naura while others were sent back to Afghanistan, disregarding the risk of persecution if they are sent back (UNHCR, 2006). By initially refusing to accept refugees and sending them back to Afghanistan, Australia fails to uphold the non-refoulement principle. Non-refoulement states that no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee to a territory where his life is threatened (Note, 1977). Even though Australia has legal obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, the Tampa Affair demonstrates the weakness of the legal framework in failing to effectively enforce refugee law and punish countries when they commit violations.
In addition to violating the core principle of non-refoulement, Australian detention centers do not comply with human rights protection such as the right to access medical care and freedom from degrading treatment. Detention camps for refugees have horrible conditions that negatively impact mental and emotional health. At the Naura camp, more than 30 children report sexual assault, and 1200 refugees suffer severe abuse and inhumane treatment (Australia, 2016). They experience indoor temperatures over 113 degrees Fahrenheit, use filthy toilets, and are hampered by severe resource constraints (Holzer, 2012). Thus, the legal framework is functionally inefficient because it fails to guarantee basic human rights that refugees should have. The violations against both non-refoulement and human rights undermine the stronghold of the legal framework and its protections, which further impact the attitudes of other countries.
Near East – Nearer the Trouble
Similar to Australia’s case, Turkey faces international criticism because several Syrian refugees have been forcibly deported back to Syria by Turkish authorities in violation of the non-refoulement principle, putting them at risk of human rights abuses. About 80 Syrian refugees held at a detention center in the Turkish city of Erzurum were expelled (Letsch, 2015). In addition, they were tortured, beaten, locked in rooms, and forced to sign documents that state they were leaving Turkey out of their own free will (Ibid). These actions go against Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture, which states that any act by which severe pain is intentionally inflicted on a person for purposes such as intimidating or coercing something from a third person, is illegal (Grans, 2015). Refugees do not have access to interpreters who can translate the Turkish language on the document, and police officers forcibly use refugees’ fingerprints as signatures without permission. However, refugees cannot challenge their detention or deportation because they have no legal representation, and Turkey does not grant refugees a fair hearing. By forcibly deporting refugees, Turkey violates the provision that repatriation must be voluntary (Lect, Nov.8). Thus, the legal framework is unsuccessful in even giving refugees an opportunity to seek long-term, legitimate refugee status under fair means.
Polish the Czech or C(z)heck the Polish ?
In addition to Turkey, refugees flee the Syrian civil war to the EU, and of course within, to the Czech Republic, Poland and other Visegrád countries. However, the Czech Republic for instance intentionally violates human rights to deter them from coming in the first place. The refugees prefer Germany, but they are in no freedom to seek refugee status at a place they desire (Ibid). They must seek it at the first possible venue, forcing them to enter the Czech Republic (Lect, Nov.8). Refugees experience strip-searching and their money is confiscated to pay for their detention; additionally, the Czech Republic holds refugees in detention from 40 to 90 days in degrading conditions (Calamur, 2015). The Czech Justice Minister also describes the Bìlá-Jezovqá detention center as worse than a prison (Ibid). This example demonstrates the use of systematic mistreatment towards refugees- to the extent of abusing their human rights but not to the point of death-to discourage them from trying to seek refugee status. The Czech strategy in intentionally failing to protect human rights causes the deterrence of refugees. In this case, the legal framework plays a role in granting refugees a chance to seek refugee status, but is still weak in protecting refugees’ freedom from degrading treatment once in the country.
In general, when refugees are placed in refugee or detention camps, they lack freedom of movement and do not have economic rights. Refugees are forced to stay in the camps because they have nowhere else to go, which restricts their freedom to move. A majority of the refugees cannot make future plans because they are not given a timeline of how long they need to remain at the camp (Training, 2001). This uncertainty restricts their ability to make economic progress, find a way to make a living, or find a permanent job. In fact, the protection of human rights for refugees is drastically inferior to that of trafficking. A Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Person (SRTIP) is appointed to focus on the human rights aspect of the victims of trafficking (Gallagher & Ezeilo, 2015). The SRTIP has the authority to monitor, advise, and publicly report on a human rights situation in a specific country. However, there is no appointed person to report human rights abuses for refugees. Although the legal framework allows refugees to seek haven in another country to avoid persecution, they are still subject to human rights abuses, just not to the extent of death. The legal framework, including the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, is inherently ineffective because it does not have monitoring bodies to reinforce the protection of refugees’ human rights and hold states accountable for violations.
An un/silky-smooth road
Although Syrian refugees going to the Czech Republic are at least given the opportunity to seek refugee status, the status of North Korean refugees crossing into China is highly debated, which affects their treatment and the benefits they are entitled to. The Chinese government insists that North Korean refugees are economic migrants seeking economic opportunity (Lect, Nov.8). The famine in North Korea causes too many North Koreans to cross over to China, which poses an economic strain on undeveloped border regions and disrupts China’s demography (Cohen, 2007). The legal framework holds very little power in compelling China to prioritize accepting refugees over protecting their economy. China is able to find a loophole in the legal framework by stating that famine does not necessarily equal persecution; therefore, China is justified in not accepting people simply trying to take economic advantage. The legal framework fails to clearly delineate the forms of persecution, allowing China to label North Korea refugees as economic migrants and not accept them.
However, North Koreans leave their country at risk of arrest and death if they are forced to turn back, which should not be an issue in the first place since repatriation should be voluntary under the Convention and Protocol. When they are turned back, they are tortured and persecuted because defection is a crime of treachery against North Korea (Robertson, 2012). This goes against the 1951 Refugee Convention that states that no state shall expel a person to another state where there are substantial grounds that the person will face torture (UNHCR, 1977). Forcibly repatriating the North Koreans is the same as subjecting them to death. Along with the threat of death, North Koreans have no determination process to which China is legally liable for. In this sense, China fails to uphold its responsibility as a receiving country that gives refugees a fair hearing, proving the inadequacy of the legal framework to manage the country’s adherence to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol.
Furthermore, the politics of North Koreans’ refugee status overshadows the importance of abiding by the legal framework. The Chinese are motivated to avoid displeasing North Korea. China holds extreme power because it is the only country that has ties with North Korea and can address international concerns such as North Korea’s possession over nuclear weapons (Lect, Nov.8). Therefore, China has a strong motive to maintain its connection with North Korea. Thus, although China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and has the obligation to not forcibly repatriate refugees, China cooperates with North Korea to find defectors. China justifies turning in defectors by claiming that defectors are not legally considered refugees (Lee, 2016). Chinese citizens are even paid for turning defectors in (Ibid). Overall, defectors lack access to schooling, health care, and citizenship. Women defectors are also vulnerable to abuse and sex trafficking. They are often forced into marriages and sold to Chinese men (Yun, 2016). These human rights abuses demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the legal framework in functioning to hold states accountable for protecting refugees’ rights. In China’s case, the lack of clarity for “persecution” allows China to justify this mistreatment because defectors are not refugees, and China has no legal obligation to protect defectors’ rights. Thus, the legal framework is inadequate in its specificity.
Criminalize indifference and enforce acceptance
“Faced with aging domestic populations and following the logics of corporate expansion, the Western markets need migrants, but the ordinary citizenry does not want them. What changed in the meantime is the societal capacity to absorb those immigrants – and closely related to that – the psychological state of domestic populations. Therefore, many European political parties extended their agendas with more restrictive immigration policies.” – noted professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic in his inspiring work ‘JHA Diplomacy’. “Shortsighted and opportunistic as it might be – it ignores the golden rule of migration: Once you cut off legal means, would-be immigrants just turn to smugglers.” – professor explained the phenomenon and predicted our currents nearly ten years ago.
In conclusion, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, both of which form the legal framework for refugees, are ineffective in enforcing the acceptance of refugees with the option of voluntary repatriation and protecting their rights. Although Australia is generally accepting of refugees, the extreme influx of authorized asylum seekers has overwhelmed the country, causing Australians to view them as exploiters of Australia’s welfare system. Australia has violated the non-refoulement principle and subjected refugees to terrible conditions, which are violations of the legal framework. The bigger implication is that disobedience has a cascading effect – Turkey, the Czech Republic and Poland, and China have also violated the non-refoulement principle and committed human rights abuses. While all three countries subject refugees to degrading treatment, Turkey forcibly deports refugees, the Czech Republic deliberately mistreats refugees to deter them from coming, and China outright rejects North Koreans as refugees. These examples indicate the weakness of the legal framework in granting refugee status in the long-term and protecting their rights. When looking at the bigger picture, installing monitoring bodies and regulatory agencies to supervise the adherence to the legal framework for refugees can strengthen the effectiveness of the legal framework.
Sooyoung Hu is a scholar at its Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies Department at US-based Berkeley University. Ms Hu focuses on international relations, international organizations and its instruments.