Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Needs of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers

While they share common characteristics in that they are all fleeing some form of danger to their health and well-being, there are distinct and important differences between refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum seekers.  Refugees have been granted asylum by a country other than that of their origin and/or residence and are protected from being expelled by that country by the principle of non-refoulement.  IDPs have left their homes and fled to another location but have not crossed international borders, instead they remain in their country of origin and/or residence.  Finally, asylum seekers have applied for refugee status with a country other than that of their origin and are awaiting the decision on that status.

There are also stateless people who are people without a nationality of any kind (UNHCR 2015).  This means that they were not granted a nationality by birth from the government in the country where they were born or that of which their parents were nationals (UNHCR 2015).  They were also not granted a nationality based on where they have lived a significant portion of their lives (UNHCR 2015).  This may be the result of discrimination against certain groups (racism, sexism, conflict between tribes, etc), poor legislation or incompetent government bodies (UNHCR 2015).  The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons provides more information about the legal definition of a stateless person.

These different groups of people have different health needs and levels of protection afforded to them.  As previously mentioned, people who are granted refugee status are protected by international law (whether the country in which they are a refugee has signed the convention or not) from being expelled or sent back to the country that they fled (UNHCR 2011).  As a refugee, an individual enjoys the same protection and rights afforded to the nationals and other residents of that country for as long as the status of refugee is necessary (as it is not necessarily permanent).  That is to say that if someone repatriates voluntarily to their country of origin or become a naturalised citizen of the country in which they were a refugee, they no longer have that status.  The other rights of refugees include:
  • the right to work
  • the right to an education
  • the right to health care
  • the right to housing
  • the right to freedom of religion
  • the right to access the court system
  • the right to be issued an identity and travel documents 
  • the right to public relief and assistance (which I assume means the right to access unemployment, maternity pay and disability funds until they can find a job if they can work) 
  • the right to move freely around the country
  • the right to family unity
(UNHCR 2011)

Refugees also have the right not to be punished for entering the state or territory illegally (UNHCR 2011), something that I found conflicted with Australia's policy on people arriving by boat.  I actually had never heard of that right, but now that I have I certainly have a greater appreciation for the stance that many people have taken against turning the boats back to Indonesia and settling the asylum seekers arriving by boat on Nauru or Manus Island.

But of course, asylum seekers have not yet been granted refugee status and in fact that status can be refused for the following reasons: 
  1. They have been unable to provide sufficient and legitimate evidence of persecution or danger to their well-being warranting refuge from their country of origin, or-
  2. They have committed a serious crime (war crime, crime against peace, crimes against humanity, non-political crimes (for example rape, murder, assault), or crimes that are contrary to the policies and principles of the UN).
(UNHCR 2011)

This is where the waters can become a little murky and the clarity of laws, well, cloudy.  According to the UNHCR's Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers released from 1999, the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers violates their human rights and may also be a breach of international law.  After all, asylum seekers are in essence refugees, they just have not yet been given that status (UNHCR 1999).  What is considered detention?  It is the confinement of asylum seekers to prison-like environments, detention centres, narrow spaces and essentially anywhere that is an enclosed area that they cannot leave without having to depart the territory completely (Nauru for example, which is pretty upsetting considering the fact that Australia signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention) (UNHCR 1999).  It is not the same as restricting someone's movement, so for example, someone who is living in a home or place of residence but is limited in terms of where they are allowed to visit or travel is not considered a to be in detention (UNHCR 1999).  Detention is especially advised against (and in my opinion, reprehensible) in the case of vulnerable groups such as women, children, people with special needs and unaccompanied minors (UNHCR 1999).  

But of course, there are always caveats.  Asylum seekers may be detained if there are extenuating circumstances and detention is deemed "necessary", especially to maintain public safety.  This loophole is one that the Australian government appears to have taken full advantage of.  These circumstances include everything from verifying documents and the reasons for seeking refuge to suspicions of criminal behaviour and the intentional destruction of identification (UNHCR 1999).  Asylum seekers must also make themselves known to authorities as soon as possible so that the processing of their status can begin (otherwise they are essentially staying illegally) (UNHCR 1999).  
However, the UNHCR states that alternatives to detention should be considered first.  I understood this last statement as an "innocent until proven guilty and thrown in a detention centre" clause and it made even more sense to look at it that way when I read that asylum seekers should be able to be "released on bail" (for a price that is not set too high of course) (UNHCR 1999).  For detention to be lawful, it must not be discriminatory (a rule that I struggled with somewhat given the special remarks against detaining children and women, which to be fair, is slightly discriminatory, but perhaps the rule applies more to cases of race, religion and creed) (UNHCR 1999).  

Overall, the UNHCR is unsurprisingly against the detention of asylum seekers, especially when it is prolonged and the conditions are below the normal standards of living (UNHCR 1999).  This applies to those who arrive by sea as well, or as they are referred to in Australia "boat people".  According to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols, if the boats reach Australian waters or Australian land, the people seeking refuge must be allowed to enter Australia as asylum seekers (Roberts 2014).  The same rules apply to other countries receiving refugees.

This brings me to my next point, the rights of asylum seekers and the conditions in detention centres.  Asylum seekers (and stateless persons) are protected both by the national laws of the country as well as the regional and international laws relating to human rights (UNHCR 1999).  These outline the basic standards of treatment of human beings (UNHCR 1999).  Asylum seekers must also abide by these laws.

The way that I understand it, IDPs are a bit of a different story because they still reside within the boundaries of their country so they are protected by national laws.  However, they should also be protected by regional and international laws pertaining to human rights (although whether the country abides by those laws or establishes their own that in fact conflict with international laws depends on the country).  There may also be cases in which there are no established national laws because of conflict or lack of government.  In this case, the regional and international laws would be the ones that applied.  IDPs may require special protection if they are fleeing conflict or persecution in a particular area and it would be up to national or international forces (depending on who will or can offer protection) to do so.

The health needs of refugees, IDPs and asylum seekers are likely to be very similar and would depend more on the circumstances they are fleeing than their official status.  Treatment for trauma (mental and physical), malnutrition, dehydration, communicable diseases, sexual and reproductive health needs, chronic disease management, basic sanitation and hygiene, vaccinations for preventable diseases, as well as spiritual and emotional wellbeing are all potential health needs of all three groups.  All three groups are fleeing something, whether it's a natural disaster or conflict and that something could have caused or facilitated one or many health problems.  Both the basic and special (concerns attributable to the disaster) health needs of those people need to be looked after.  The only thing that will change is who will be meeting those needs, will it be the local government, international governments, NGOs, etc?  Ultimately someone has to...

According to the UNHCR, there were 51.2 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide as of 2013: 16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million IDPs and approximately 1.07 million asylum seekers (UNHCR 2013).  There are also an estimated 10 million people who are defined as stateless (UNHCR 2013).  A staggering 86% of refugees end up in developing countries, meaning that on a global scale, the number that ever reach places like Australia is quite small (UNHCR 2013).  

In closing I thought I would include some personal reflections.  I can honestly say that I see both sides of the debate when it comes to accepting refugees.  I understand the desire for restrictions, especially on those that do not apply through the regular channels.  It is difficult to know whether those individuals pose a threat to public safety and I appreciate the fact that the government's first responsibility is to protect its own people.  The recent terror attack (although some have argued about calling it that) at the Lindt cafe in Sydney will unfortunately not help the case against detention considering the fact that the perpetuator came to Australia as a refugee.  Then again, he was only one person and every society has its bad apples, are we going to let the actions of a few people with bad intentions dictate how we treat all refugees and asylum seekers?   

I also understand the fact that Australia has to try to find some way to deter people from getting on old, rickety, dangerous boats that tend to tip, placing all of the lives on board in danger.  However, refusing refuge seems to fly directly in the face of international law and its responsibilities as a nation.  Surely there is another way, but of course I am not a politician so even if I came up with an idea it would not mean much.

I can even sometimes understand the perspective that some people really just want to come to Australia for a better life and in fact have nothing to fear in their home countries and in that case aren't in fact refugees (unfortunately border patrol shows are not helping to change that growing view).  But, I also believe that the government should not automatically assume that is the case from the start.  

My husband's cousin Nikki has worked for the Multicultural Development Association (MDA) for several years and has recently been sent to Nauru along with her partner to help settle refugees there.  The conditions that she speaks of are appalling.  Essentially their role is to get people working and to help set up some sort of economy because there is none.  There is almost nothing there except for people and resources that come in very infrequently.  In all honesty, it sounds like a place that people should be seeking refuge from, not where those in need should be sent to.  Who knows, maybe the conditions will improve over time, I mean I do have an enormous amount of faith in Nikki, but it certainly will be a herculean task.  Then again, maybe other countries will soon start accepting applications for refugee status from people looking to escape the conditions they are subjected to on Nauru.  It certainly does not adhere to the UNHCR's principles.


Roberts, G 2014, Asylum seeker boat turn-back questions going unanswered by Government, says UNHCR, ABC News, viewed 21 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 1999, UNHCR's Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>

UNHCR 2011, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols, UNHCR, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 2013, UNHCR Global Trends 2013, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 2015, What is Statelessness?, viewed 19 December 2014, <>.


No comments:

Post a Comment