People who are forced to flee their homes due to persecution, whether on an individual basis or as part of a mass exodus due to political, religious, military or other problems, are known as refugees. The definition of a refugee has varied over the years, but increased international concern for the plight of refugees led to the accepted definition of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which stated that a refused is a person who "owing 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country or return there because there is a fear of persecution...."
The Convention detailed that reasons for persecution must be because of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
One of the fundamental principals in international refugee law nonrefoulement is traced to Article 3 of the UN Refugee Convention which states says that no state "shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."
Unfortunately in the past fifty years, states have largely regressed in their commitment to protect refugees, with the wealthy industrialized states of Europe, North America and Australia – which helped first establish the international refugee protection system – adopting particularly hostile and restrictive policies. Governments have subjected refugees to arbitrary arrest, detention, denial of social and economic rights and closed borders. In the worst cases, the principal of nonrefoulement is violated and refugees are forcibly returned to countries where they face persecution. Since the tragedy of September 11, many countries have pushed through emergency anti-terrorism legislation that curtains the rights of refugees.
The largest refugee crisis of 2007 is the exodus of Iraqi refugees from the violence and instability of their homeland. To date, over 2 million refugees are scattered throughout Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and many other countries in the region and beyond. Neither the Iraqi government nor Coalition forces in Iraq have taken responsibility for the well-being of these refugees. While the Bush Administration and the UK are busy trying to win the war, they have provided no leadership toward ensuring the rights and well-being of the victims of this war. Ironically, most of the refugees have found relative safety in Syria and Jordan. Although this is obviously an accident of geography, after all, the countries border Iraq, but it also demonstrates that adoption of Western values of democracy does not determine the treatment of refugees.
A new report from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) highlights ten of the worst violators of refugees’ rights. According to the World Refugee Survey 2008, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Russia, Sudan, Thailand, and the countries of Europe collectively were all among the worst places for refugees in 2007.
- Bangladesh makes life miserable for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that reside in the country, confining them to camps and, with no legal basis, denying them the right to work, practice professions, engage in business and own property. Most have no legal status at all.
- China forcibly returned hundreds of North Korean refugees who tried to escape one of the world’s most repressive regimes despite the clear persecution they faced upon return to North Korea.
- European countries have crafted policies that essentially deny access by making it as difficult as possible to enter their territory, and also forcibly returned failed asylum seekers to manifestly dangerous situations.
- India maintained blatantly discriminatory policies toward refugees, favoring Tibetan refugees from China. The least favored are ethnic Chin from Myanmar who were rounded up and forcibly returned to their homeland in 2003 by a government sanctioned nationalist group.
- Since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, more than 85,000 Palestinian refugees have fled targeted violence in Iraq. Insurgents have tortured Palestinians to death and fired mortars into Palestinian neighborhoods.
- Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee camps are two of the worst examples of the long-term ware-housing of refugees in the world. Kenya confines the majority of its refugees to these camps, denying the right to work and live where and how they choose. The camps are rife with human rights abuses: rape, domestic violence, and other crimes were common in the camps; traditional court systems imprisoned refugees for offenses including adultery that were not crimes under Kenyan or international law.
- Malaysia picks and chooses the groups to which it offers protection, opening its borders to some groups of Muslim refugees, but detaining, caning and deporting others. In some cases, Malaysian officials turned deportees directly over to human smugglers who demanded fees for smuggling the refugees back into Malaysia or sold them into slavery in Thai fishing boats or brothels if they could not pay.
- Russia has created a system of rules and regulations that make it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to obtain legal refugee status. It expelled thousands of potential asylum seekers without hearings and also collaborated with Uzbekistan’s security forces in kidnapping and returning Uzbeks suspected of opposing their government.
- Sudan has kept Eritrean refugees warehoused in camps for nearly 40 years, and Ethiopians for nearly 30. The 12 camps lacked adequate drinking water and food. Sudan denies the right to work, leaving them unable to supplement their rations.
- Thailand returned thousands of Burmese directly over to authorities in their home country, and forced nearly 25,400 more back across the border. Thailand also does not recognize most of the Myanmarese refugees in its territories, and those that it does it warehouses in camps without the right to work.
United National Refugee Agency
Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International USA