World Refugee Day #WithRefugees

World Refugee Day #WithRefugees
Refugees in Garigliano area of Italy for World Refugee Day
Refugees in Garigliano area of Italy c. 1943-1944. Photo by Great Britain War Office. Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

World Refugee Day

If you haven’t heard, tomorrow (20 June) is the United Nations World Refugee Day.

The Day started in 2016 with the #WithRefugees petition asking World Governments to ensure every refugee:

  • Child gets an education.
  • Family has somewhere safe to live.
  • Can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

Refugee Rights

Technically, refugees are already guaranteed these rights under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, along with the rights not to be:

  • Punished for illegal entry. (Because when you flee, you may not have time to apply for passports, visas, or lawful transport for that matter).
  • Sent to a place where they will suffer torture or persecution. Whether that’s “home” or somewhere else, regardless of whether it’s a signatory to the Convention or not.
  • Expelled from a receiving country, unless they are a risk to national security or public order.

The UN Convention

The Convention has its roots in the First World War when millions of people were made homeless by the conflict. The Paris Peace Conference that ended the war set up the League of Nations, and it started drafting agreements to protect the human rights of refugees and ensure they received adequate treatment.

During the Second World War millions more people were displaced, forcibly resettled or deported. After the war, the United Nations replaced the League of Nations, negotiating and ratifying the Convention. The 1967 Protocol recognised the wider issue of displaced people and removed the initial European limitations. These international agreements are the basis of our modern obligations towards refugees.

The Convention defines a refugee as a person who fled their home and country due to a

well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country

The Convention does not define asylum seekers. They are refugees who have not yet had their claim for refugee status confirmed – refugees in waiting. Pended, if you like, in Regional Processing Centres like Manus Island, and Nauru.

Here in Australia

As one of the early signatories to the Convention, Australia is obliged to grant those rights to refugees within its jurisdiction, not just its territory. We don’t have to go and find them, though we do. But if they arrive, we must give them the protection we agreed to.

A 2000 Australian Parliamentary Research Paper, The Problem with the 1951 Refugee Convention, found that the Convention was developed specifically for dealing with people in their own countries. This prevents Australia from adequately dealing with refugees because the Convention:

  • uses an outdated definition of refugee
  • does not place obligations on the nation of origin or requirement to share the burden with the receiving country
  • provides the opportunity for criminal activities like people smuggling
  • takes no account of the impact on receiving countries
  • gives priority to asylum seekers with mobility rather than greatest need
  • makes asylum seekers less sympathetic than refugees
  • fosters a difference between political/genuine/deserving refugees and economic/abusive/underserving asylum seekers

The main concern (here and abroad) is that “asylum seekers” are using the Convention as a path of regular migration. I hope this reflects a concern for the most disadvantaged left out in the cold. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. The government seems to believe that people who come from a war zone are either economic migrants or terrorists. Presumably, refugees wait for months in local camps while their claims are processed, and perhaps years for resettlement.

Australian Immigration Detention

As at April 2017, there were 1,392 people in onshore Immigration Detention Centres (including the Australian territory of Christmas Island) and 1,194 in offshore Regional Processing Centres (821 on Manus Island, and 373 on Nauru). The average period in onshore detention was 450 days (a little under one year and three months) however, 22.6% had been detained for more than two years. The onshore population includes 467 people who arrived unlawfully and 925 people who overstayed or breached their visa conditions.

I haven’t been able to access similar statistics on offshore detention, mainly because the centres fall under the active Operation Sovereign Borders and we don’t comment on active operations. The media releases show a slow and steady repatriation of those whose Refugee Status Determinations were negative but don’t describe what happens to the positives.

A number of legal academics have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate whether the Australian approach to outsourcing offshore immigration detention to other governments and private contractors constitutes a crime against humanity. They are concerned that it provides a low bar for international treatment of asylum seekers – particularly in the current US and EU political climates.

On which note, the US authorities have completed the “Extreme” vetting of 70 refugees on Manus Island and the men will know whether they have been approved for resettlement within six weeks. Which may or may not be linked to Australia resettling Central American refugees from a US program in Costa Rica. And may or may not include the full original commitment of 1, 250 refugees.


At which point I become tired of politics and politicians and need to return to the refugees.

World Refugee Day is intended to “commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.”  This year, the UN invites citizens to show their support for refugees too by signing the petition and using the hashtag #WithRefugees. And as I asked in my  Aleppo post, pray and consider donating to organisations working with refugees.

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