What Protections Exist for Refugees Worldwide?

This is the second of a three-part series on refugees and immigration by Manji Law.

Headlines around the world have recently drawn attention to refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom seek to avoid the spotlight rather than garner press attention. However, in order to understand the roots of what has been labeled a ‘refugee crisis’, it is important to understand who refugees and asylum seekers are, and how they are protected worldwide.

Refugees are individuals who are fleeing their countries because of war, violence, or persecution. They may face persecution because of their race, nationality, religion, political affiliation, or social identity. While many refugees long to return home, they cannot or are afraid of what will happen if they do.

When refugees flee their countries and seek to find sanctuary, they must apply for asylum. Asylum seekers are those who have applied to have their status recognized by another country, and receive material assistance or legal protections. In order to receive asylum and refugee recognition, people must show that their fear of persecution at home is well-founded.

Photograph courtesy of UNHCR

While the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol lay out the framework for refugee protections, not all asylum-giving countries provide the same support. The treaty has been ratified by 145 different countries and commits those countries to its principles. One of the central principles of the Convention is non-refoulement, meaning that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face threats to their lives or liberties. The treaty was initially drafted in response to the massive numbers of European refugees caused by destruction from World War II, and was then limited to refugees created due to events in Europe prior to 1951. The 1967 amendment to the treaty universalized the rights and principles of the document, making them applicable to all refugees worldwide.

While the principle of non-refoulement is central to the treaty, there are a number of other significant rights recognized for refugees. These include the right to work, and access to housing, education, public relief, and assistance. It also includes freedom from punishment due to entering a country illegally to seek asylum.

Over the years, the U.S. has contributed significantly to resettling and receiving refugees. Generally, every year it has offered more refugees asylum than all other nations combined. However, policies advanced by the Trump administration are useating the U.S. from its role as a leader in refugee resettlement and protection.

The U.S. 1980 Refugee Act integrated the international definition of a refugee into domestic law. That same definition forms the basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Each year, the President in conjunction with Congress determines a ceiling for refugee admissions. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, that ceiling was set at 85,000. The Trump administration has set a ceiling of 45,000 for 2018.

In 2017, American refugee policy went through an abrupt overhaul. The Obama administration had set a ceiling of 110,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year prior to the change of administrations. The Trump administration promptly sliced it to 50,000 amid pledges of a security overhaul, despite the fact that there was no indication of a security problem with the U.S. refugee admission system.

Photograph courtesy of Jeff J Mitchell for the Irish Times

Family reunification has been a cornerstone of American immigration policy. However, the Trump administration has, in addition to overall pledges to reduce immigration, supported a system more heavily weighted toward highly skilled or employable workers. Some other countries – such as Canada and Australia – already have such a system; however, Canada has also increased its refugee intake in recent years.

Other policies of the Trump administration have also showcased a harsh approach to refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. The separation of parents from children in detention centers spawned widespread criticism, especially from those who see this policy at odds with a traditional U.S. approach to migration.

In Europe, children are rarely separated from their families and migrant detention is a less frequent policy overall. On the other hand, poorer nations like Bangladesh and Thailand have imposed extremely harsh conditions on refugees (Thailand is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention). Of course, the geographic proximity to war, as well as the economic realities of these countries vary greatly from that of the U.S.

Policies like Trump’s travel ban – often colloquially called the “Muslim ban” for its disproportionate effect on people from Muslim-majority countries – and the loudly promoted border wall illustrate the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States. This comes in parallel with a similar rise of far-right parties in Europe with migration policy at the center of their advocacy. The promise of the United States for refugees and asylum seekers remains alive despite these changing laws and regulations, even as migrant justice advocates push back against further restrictions. This country has been deeply enriched by those refugees seeking freedom. With a bit of help, it can keep that vision of America relevant in today’s new era.

Author’s Bio

 

Jameel Manji is an immigration attorney in Atlanta, Georgia and founder of Manji Law, P.C. Manji Law was founded in 2016 with the goal of helping people navigate the complicated immigration system. As an immigration law firm, Manji Law helps clients with family immigration, removal defense (deportation), asylum/refugee waivers, business immigration, naturalization, and more.

 

 

If you’re interested in learning more about refugees, I invite you to view Invisible Victimisation: The Gendered Politics of the Refugee Crisis and Thoughts on the Guardian’s “Tourists Go Home, Refugees Welcome”. I also strongly encourage that you ready the first part of Manji Law’s refugee and immigration series, the Future of Immigration to the United States: Predictions from an Immigration Lawyer. The third part will be published in the following weeks.

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Thoughts on the Guardian’s “Tourists Go Home, Refugees Welcome”

I woke up this morning to an article in the Guardian by Stephen Burgen called Tourists Go Home, Refugees Welcome: Why Barcelona Chose Migrants Over Visitors. The refugee crisis is an issue I am fiercely concerned about; you may even remember an article I published earlier this year called Invisible Victimisation: The Gender Politics of the Refugee Crisis. Reading the Guardian, some spark of motivation gripped me – something that happens all too rarely of late – and I seized my laptop and began to jot down my own thoughts.

I warn you that this is not a polished, introspective response to Burgen’s piece. Rather, this is a somewhat fragmented collection of my thoughts at 9am on a Monday morning before my first cuppa. I haven’t even finished the piece prior to writing this introduction. But that’s what I wanted: something sincere and barefaced. A conversation with you, the reader – and conversations don’t have the luxury of review.

But without further ado!

If you haven’t read the article of which I am writing about, I strongly recommend you do. Nevertheless, I’ll give you some context. Burgen begins by remembering a protest that took place in Barcelona last year targeting Spain’s refugee quota. Around the same time, graffiti began cropping up around the city that read ‘tourists go home, refugees welcome’. The Spanish media quickly termed the phenomenon turismofobia.

What was driving this outcry? As Burgen writes, “… it is tourism, not immigration, that people see as a threat to (Barcelona’s) very identity”.

I harbour many thoughts about identity politics. A lot of those thoughts are still scattered and only half-formed, and for that reason, I will not offer my full opinion until I am confident that I can articulate it well. But what I will say is that I do not believe identity to be productive – at least not in the sense Burgen is appealing to. This is a position that I expressed in my post In Defence of Cultural Appropriation. To paraphrase and truncate this article, cultural identity is destructive because it divides communities and encourages hostility through an us-them mentality. If we are ever going to enjoy a society where people of all backgrounds are treated equal, then I believe that identity is a construct we need to challenge.

However, the plot thickens when we apply this line of reasoning to Burgen’s article. If we analyse the above quote, we understand Burgen to be arguing that refugees in fact form part of Barcelona’s identity, whereas tourists jeopardise it. Here, we observe that the traditional paradigm – whereby refugees are framed as the problem – is reversed. Barcelona’s identity politics are working towards helping an impoverished group who have consistently been demonised for their own suffering and plights. Barcelona sees embracing ‘outsiders’ as integral to its sense of self.

Thus, can I still argue that identity is a bad thing?

The answer is yes.

Even if in some cases identity encourages group altruism, I do not believe it to be constructive if it still comes at somebody else’s expense. Now, that ‘somebody else’ may be privileged tourists who might have spent more time contemplating what colour bikini they are going to wear on Playa Mar Bella than the refugee crisis, but that expense is still an expense.

I am neither arguing that tourism is always a good thing: as a travel blogger, I may be the pot calling the kettle black, but I am not ignorant to the negative impacts tourism can – and does – hold. In the context of Barcelona alone, the city receives roughly twenty times as many tourists as residents. To quote Burgen, this number is “… driving up rent, pushing residents out of neighbourhoods, and overwhelming the public space”. I do not disagree that these consequences are undesirable and should be addressed.

Is the answer to ban tourism? In my eyes, no. One of the major positive impacts of tourism is that it can expose people to the lives of others and teach them that different doesn’t automatically mean bad. It can teach people that their own experience does not reflect the human experience, and that they can learn so much from those they interact with.

“… immigration has changed the city, but tourism is destabilising it”.

Stephen Burgen

One of Barcelona’s district councillors, Santi Ibarra, further argues that “… tourism takes something out of neighbourhoods… it makes them more banal – the same as everywhere else”. I sympathise with Ibarra, although perhaps for different reasons. I also sympathise to an extent with Burgen, although I take issue with some of his claims. For example, he claims that diversity is to be celebrated rather than condemned, and yet he seems to imply that tourism cannot offer that. Part of me instinctively wants to cheer him on. When I think of the word ‘tourist’, my mind conjures images of homogenous white people wearing sandals and brandishing selfie sticks. I mean, I just googled ‘tourist’, and had to actually scroll before I saw any colour representation. Try it. But the reality is that tourists are no less diverse than refugees, and to insist otherwise will help no one.

Barcelona prides itself on maintaining a large immigrant population without interpersonal conflict, but I fail to understand how, in the same breath, it can also pride itself on breeding conflict between residents and tourists. Travellers need to hold themselves accountable for being educating about responsible tourism, and they need to treat the cities they visit with respect. Those that do not should be penalised in some just way. But they should not be banned from certain cities simply for wanting to experience more of the world.

So… what is the answer?

I don’t know. I’m not writing this to offer a solution to Barcelona’s tourism problem. I’m writing this to share my messy, 9am on a Monday, tea-less thoughts. I am feeling optimistic about the council’s 2015 approach to “… impose a moratorium on new hotels… contain the spread of tourist apartments and devise an urban plan… that prioritises local commerce over businesses aimed at tourists”. I can imagine a similarly optimistic outcome for extending these changes to public transport so that residents can actually move within their own city. What I am not feeling optimistic about is an outright ban on tourism in Barcelona – or anywhere else, for that matter.
In his Guardian article, Stephen Burgen reflects upon the palpable tension between Barcelona residents and tourists. I think it is fantastic that Barcelona is challenging the close-mindedness many communities experience regarding the refugee crisis, but what I don’t think is so fantastic is their use of identity politics to ostracise the tourist population. I sympathise deeply with much Burgen has said, and as someone coming from a country that harbours its own resentment towards tourists, I agree that it is an issue that demands urgent address. But Barcelona’s reasons for ostracising tourists is unjustified. Identity should never have come into the equation, and if the city wants to rationalise its animosity, it would do better to look to concrete logistics such as housing shortages and transport issues that simply cannot accommodate the hordes.
If this opinion piece has whet your appetite, make sure to peruse Airline Inequality: A Social Microcosm of Class. I would also love to hear your feedback on the articles I linked above in this post about the refugee crisis and cultural appropriation. Drop a line to my email below.
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