65 years on, 65 million people forcibly displaced!

By Davis Uwizeye (Published 28th July 2016)

Today, 28th July 2016, marks sixty-five years since the adoption of the 1951 UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION RELATING TO THE STATUS OF REFUGEES, a refugee protection instrument that was adopted on 28th July 1951 to address the refugee crisis in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was later amended by the 1967 Protocol to remove the limitations of time and geographical boundaries, thus making it a universal instrument. It is both a status and rights-based instrument that is underpinned by a number of fundamental principles most notably; non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement.

Despite growing criticism from a section of technocrats, diplomats and scholars, the fundamental significance and endurance of the 1951 Convention is still undeniable. It remains the only binding refugee protection instrument of a universal character.

I would like to take this moment to wish the 1951 UN Convention a happy anniversary…well deserved. But as we celebrate, I would like to acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. Recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicate that, today, 65.3 million people around the world have been forced out of their homes. On average this translates into one million people for each year the convention has been in existence!  21.3 million of these are refugees, over half of whom are children under the age of 18 (these refugees include the Palestine refugees under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency – UNRWA). If we look back and see this many people displaced, by this much conflict and with so little accountability, then we have to question the source of the problem. Should we not be asking how to make the world more stable rather than how to stabilize a mass of displaced people? What are the failures and flaws of our international system that have made forceful displacement of people a vicious cycle? The challenge to us all is succinctly summed up by Angelina Jolie, the former UNHCR goodwill Ambassador and special envoy to former commissioner Mr. Antonio Guterres; 

“An unstable world is an unsafe world for all, and there is no barrier high enough to protect from such disorder and desperation. If your house is on fire, you are not safe if you just lock up your doors. Isolationism is not strength. Fragmentation is not the answer”.  

In short, isolationism and fragmentation will not eradicate the disorder and desperation created by the unending conflicts in our midst. Equally, there is enough evidence to suggest that it’s not enough to just make a ‘dictator’ fall or die, that gunfire and plane airstrikes manned or unmanned do not necessarily bring stability. George Bush and Tony Blair were recently pinned by the Chilcot report [The Iraq Inquiry] on their invasion of Iraq. Blair himself admits that Iraq is worse than it was before the invasion – though he nonetheless insists that the world is better off without Saddam! Obama acknowledges that it was an error to endorse the invasion of Libya. Unfortunately, their involvement, whether initially done in good faith or otherwise, has without a shadow of a doubt done more harm than good. As Richard Engel, a journalist and author of the War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, who covered these conflicts in person as the then NBC News foreign correspondent, narrates: 

“When the furies were released in the Middle East, an evil emerged beyond my worst imaginings. The joy of the Middle East has been replaced by fear, pervasive in Iraq and Syria and darkening the lives of people throughout the region. This is why refugees have been flowing out of the Middle East by the millions to Europe. If President Bush’s seeds of democracy or the Arab Spring had bloomed, these families wouldn’t be risking everything to leave. Many in the region have simply lost all hope, which is understandable. If you lived in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi, you’d be terrified. You can’t work, you can’t sell your goods, your children can’t go to school, and you cannot even drive around without the fear of being kidnapped by bandits or terrorists. It’s not a place where people can be happy or even marginally prosperous, it is pure chaos. It’s worse in Iraq and Syria”.

As we continue to appeal to other countries not to abdicate their responsibilities pertaining to refugee protection, let us not be oblivious of peaceful conflict resolution as another cornerstone to ending the refugee crisis. The world needs to unite in the fight against the root causes of conflicts and wars that lead to mass displacements by using means that create long lasting peace and stability, not those that exacerbate the situation. We can choose to learn from our past mistakes and return to the drawing board to formulate new and better policies and interventions that will not result in the horrific post invasion dilemmas we have recently been witnessing in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is indeed more practical to endeavor to make the world more stable as opposed to stabilizing masses of people already displaced.

To avoid re-living this not so pleasant past we need policies, strategies and interventions that not only channel resources and energies to eliminating the problem on the surface but also oblige the powers that be to identify and combat, in the most peaceful and timely manner possible, the likely detrimental ramifications of their actions. 

It is also my ultimate desire that more countries especially from the developed world will see the need to join and support the International Criminal Court (ICC) to give it more credibility and dispel the allegations by some African leaders that its impartiality is dubious, and hence unfit to try them. The ICC should be our immunity against impunity. 

The issue of violent radicalization also needs to be addressed and that starts with all of us. We should mind how we raise our children, the information we feed them on, the worship centers and schools we send them to. And the friends we make! Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Al Shabaab and their sisters are largely a result of radicalization. I have long ago lost count of precious innocent lives lost to suicide bombings, mass shootings and related acts of terror that eventually metamorphose into larger forms of conflicts and hence massive forced displacements.    

In a nutshell, my heartfelt appreciation goes to the top refugee hosting countries as per the current UNHCR statistics; Turkey (2.5 million refugees), Pakistan (1.6 million refugees), Lebanon (1.1 million refugees), Islamic Republic of Iran (979, 400), Ethiopia (736,100), Jordan (664,000) and all the others that are not mentioned here but have kept their borders open for asylum seekers to freely cross over - including my generous home country Uganda whose borders have been wide open to people fleeing conflict and persecution for the last six decades. My humble appeal goes to those that still harbor xenophobic and racial sentiments, to soar above their egos and come on board. If each of the 148 countries that have already acceded to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 protocol were to bear their fair share, the refugee “crisis” as it is usually referred to, would not be a crisis at all. 

The writer (Davis Uwizeye) works for RLP as an Assessor in the Assessment and Intake Unit. He is also an Independent researcher on matters of Refugee Law and Forced Migration.


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