Building the infrastructure for the observance of refugee rights in the Global South.

Author:Harrell-Bond, Barbara


Refugees in the Global South face many serious violations of their rights. Several major host states have failed to ratify both the Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, even among those states that have ratified one or both, few have enacted the domestic legislation to implement the provisions, and no state in the South has made a serious effort to bring domestic law in other subjects--immigration, health, labour, education--into harmony with the rights of refugees and their international commitments.

This article presents a multi-faceted proposal, a guide to building a new global infrastructure for the protection of refugees. An important precursor is the rapid expansion in the teaching and studying of refugee law. Today's students of refugee issues are tomorrow's researchers, lawyers, and scholars, all of which are desperately needed to help refugees navigate the process of status determination and resettlement, to advocate more generally for the rights of refugees, and to monitor states' compliance with international obligations. Also, human rights NGOs need to embrace the fact that refugees are human beings, and refugee rights are human rights. Furthermore, advocacy groups, legal aid organizations, and other NGOs need to understand that advocacy, legal assistance, and research must go hand in hand: the provision of legal assistance to individual refugees not only makes the use of their life stories for research and advocacy more ethical, it improves the quality of the research and advocacy as well. Perhaps most importantly, all the groups working with refugees throughout the South must communicate with and assist each other.

In an effort to facilitate this crucial networking and communication, sixteen refugee advocacy and legal aid NGOs from the South attended a five-day workshop in Nairobi in January 2007. The group decided to form the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network, and to produce a charter for membership. I have been acting as the group's moderator informally since that time. In the coming months, SRLAN will attach itself to Fahamu, an advocacy NGO that publishes Africa's largest circulation magazine and has a proven track record of facilitating emerging advocacy networks. Fahamu will do fearless advocacy, often too dangerous for individual NGOs, and the SRLAN will facilitate the communication and co-operation necessary to begin the construction of the new global infrastructure for the protection of refugees. Working together, as a network of organizations throughout the South, we truly can transform this broken and unjust system.


Les refugies se trouvant dans le Sud global sont confrontes a de nombreuses violations graves de leurs droits. Plusieurs etats hotes importants refusent toujours de ratifier la Convention de 1951 et le Protocole de 1967. Cependant, meme parmi les etats qui ont ratifie l'un de ces instruments ou les deux, tres peu ont adopte la legislation interne qui permettrait de mettre en oeuvre leurs dispositions, et pas un seul etat du Sud n'a fait un reel effort afin d'harmoniser leur lois internes dans d'autres domaines--immigration, sante, travail, education--avec les droits des refugies et leurs propres engagements internationaux.

Cet article met de l'avant une proposition comportant plusieurs facettes--en quelque sorte un guide sur comment batir une nouvelle infrastructure globale pour la protection des refugies. Une importante condition de depart serait l'expansion rapide de lenseignement et de l'etude du droit des refugies. Les etudiants d'aujourd'hui sont les chercheurs, les avocats et les universitaires de demain--tous des gens qui manquent desesperement pour aider les refugies a naviguer le processus de determination du statut et de letablissement, pour defendre et promouvoir plus generalement les droits des refugies, et pour surveiller de pres le respect par les etats de leurs obligations internationales.

De plus, les ONG s'occupant des droits de la personne doivent accepter le fait que les droits des refugies sont des droits de la personne. En outre, les groupes de revendications, les organisations d'aide juridique et d'autres ONG doivent realiser que defense des droits, aide juridique et recherche doivent travailler de concert : lorsque l'aide juridique est fournie aux refugies a titre individuel, cela a pour effet non seulement de rendre plus conforme a l'ethique l'usage de leurs experiences pour la recherche et la promotion des droits, mais cela ameliore la qualite de cette recherche et promotion des droits. Mais, le plus important peut etre, c'est que tous le groupes travaillant avec les refugies a travers tout le Sud doivent communiquer entre eux et s'entraider.

Dans le but de faciliter lemergence de ce reseautage et de cette communication, seize ONG du Sud, oeuvrant dans le domaine de la defense des droits des refugies et de l'aide juridique, ont participe pendant cinq jours a un atelier de travail qui s'est tenu a Nairobi au mois de janvier 2007. Le groupe a decide de former le Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network (>), et de preparer une charte pour les membres. Depuis lors, j'ai joue, de facon informelle, le role de moderateur du groupe. Dans les prochains mois, le SRLAN va se rattacher a Fahamu, une ONG de promotion et de defense des droits qui publie le magazine a plus fort tirage de tout l'Afrique et qui a de solides antecedents dans sa capacite de faciliter lepanouissement de reseaux emergents de promotion et de defense des droits. Fahamu va organiser audacieusement la deiense des droits, entreprise souvent trop dangereuse pour les ONG individuelles, tandis que le SRLAN va faciliter la cooperation et la communication necessaires pour commencer a construire la nouvelle infrastructure globale pour la protection des refugies. Travaillant de concert en tant que reseau d'organisations du Sud, nous pouvons transformer reellement ce systeme brise et injuste.


It is well known that the vast majority of refugees are hosted by the poorest countries in the world. Because of the restrictive policies of countries in Europe and North America, the grave reality is that most of them will stay in these countries, the so-called "Global South" (hereafter, South). Even if restrictions on movement to the North were relaxed, the majority of refugees would remain in first countries of asylum because their numbers are so great.

Refugees in the South face serious violations of their rights and extreme levels of poverty. (1) Moreover, large numbers of them are confined in camps and settlements where they are denied freedom of movement, which is fundamental to their ability to access all their other economic/social rights. (2) Most spend decades "warehoused" in camps, where life is characterized by sub-nutritional diets, neglect of separated children, sexual and gender-based violence, threats, detention, beatings, torture, and even extrajudicial killings. (3) Encamped refugees are also isolated from whatever protection might be accessed through the host state's judicial authorities. Disputes or infractions of rules within camps are managed by committees of fellow refugees who have assumed extrajudicial powers to administer corporal punishment, fine, and detain, acting completely outside the legal structure of the host government, often treating actions as "punishable crimes" that are not even included in a host state's criminal code, such as adultery. (4)

Although the right to identity papers is guaranteed under Article 27 of the Refugee Convention, refugees in camps are seldom issued anything other than a ration card issued to the head of the family. (5) Even if a state (in concert with UNHCR) does issue a Convention Travel Document (CTD), few states are recognizing them. (6)

The injustice is not confined to camps. Host states in the South that allow refugees to live in urban areas usually deny them their rights to gainful employment, access to state schools, health services, and adequate housing. (7)

Article 8 of the 1950 Statute of the Office of the UNHCR (8) lists the protection responsibilities of this office. The statute does not go beyond requiring the office to promote the "conclusion and ratification of international conventions for the protection of refugees, supervising their application and proposing amendments thereto;" (9) and to promote "through special agreements with Governments the execution of any measures calculated to improve the situation of refugees..." (10) The statute then lists activities, each of which presumes the existence of an effective and functioning judicial system and an active and independent civil society. While this may have been more or less the case in Europe at the time the Statute was devised, it is not the case in most countries of the South where so many refugees are hosted today. (11)

More than fifty years have passed since the promulgation of the Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol that expanded its scope to include the rest of the world, yet very little has been done to promote or protect the rights of refugees in the South. The available evidence suggests the situation for refugees in these countries is rapidly deteriorating. (12)

The Infrastructure for Refugee Protection: What Is Missing?

Over 145 states have ratified either the Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, but several signatories--Madagascar, Monaco, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Turkey--still do not accept any refugees from the South. Because they either have not become states parties to the 1967 Protocol, or have entered a reservation to the geographical expansion of the Protocol, they have only committed themselves to accepting refugees from Europe. Moreover, forty-five states have not ratified either the Refugee Convention or its Protocol, including such major hosting countries as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand. (13) How can we build a proper infrastructure for protecting...

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