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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Forced Displacement: Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice International Response to Global Human Displacement

The displacement and movement of people in the first half of the twentieth century led to the creation of the world’s first legal and institutional framework designed to manage stateless migrants. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees were both created in 1951. Charged with the responsibility of providing international protection for refugees, the core principle of the work of the UNHCR is non-refoulement, or the belief that a refugee cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. The UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency, is a United Nations organization that is mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself. It assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement into another country.

The United States has its own international advocacy and domestic refugee resettlement organization, called the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. According to the organization’s mission statement, USCRI was established “To protect the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide and support their transition to a dignified life.”

Humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) complement the work of the UNHCR. MSF works around the world to provide refugees and IDPs with medical care and access to safe drinking water, psychological care, vaccinations, and life-saving nutrition.

Individuals also make vital contributions. Private citizens have used their own boats to rescue refugees traveling by water. Along the major refugee traveling routes through Europe to Germany, many citizens have distributed food and water. Independent volunteers raise their own funds to go and work in refugee camps. Business leaders such as Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of the U.S.-based Chobani, the world’s largest yogurt factory, employ large numbers of refugees. Other businesses offer internships, scholarships, and training courses. With the UNHCR, the Vodafone Foundation developed a digital “school in a box” to bring tablet-based teaching to young refugees living in camps.

On the national and local level, refugees and IDPs pose specific challenges for politicians and civic leaders around policy and resources. The movement of IDPs can be spontaneous depending on unforeseen outbreaks of violence or disasters, and governments can be unprepared to deal with an influx of residents. This was seen during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The financial burden of addressing the needs of refugees can be felt disproportionately in specific urban areas. For this reason, some officials (often responding to the attitudes of their constituents) withhold whatever resources they may have because they seek to discourage further influxes.

Refugees need to be housed, trained, and educated. They may require intensive medical and psychiatric care. These are examples of practical, day-to-day needs, but there are complex social and cultural needs as well. Because refugee populations tend to be poor and face language barriers in their new setting, the design and implementation of programs is paramount. Ineffective programming and poor decisions can exacerbate problems for vulnerable communities and may have lasting impacts.

Each country has its own system, but in the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), along with other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, work on asylum claims. Agencies known as resettlement support centers interview applicants, help prepare paperwork, and arrange medical examinations and background security checks. The U.S. president determines the number of refugees accepted each year in consultation with Congress. Congress then appropriates funds and contracts with nine agencies to help resettle them. Refugees are given federal money to learn English and pay for their living costs for a short time. Within a couple of months, they are expected to be self-supporting.

In the United States, a nationwide network of cities participate in programming specifically designed to welcome and aid refugees. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants supports the resettlement, and is often called a sponsor. This agency coordinates services for the uprooted — helping them with practical services, establishing community connections, and rebuilding their new lives. In the United States, individuals cannot act as sponsors, but Canada has had a longstanding policy of letting individuals sponsor refugees without any family connection. Other countries, including New Zealand, Argentina, and Switzerland, are working to institute similar programs that allow individuals to sponsor refugees, in part because of the large demand.

According to the UN and various other regional protocols, displaced people have rights. The 1951 Convention established the basic rights of refugees, which are:

  • Non-refoulement.
  • Freedom of movement, which means that refugees have the right to choose their place of residence within the territory and to move freely within that area.
  • Liberty and security of the person, which means they should not be forcefully detained.
  • Family life, which recognizes the family as the fundamental group unit of society that is entitled to protection. For example, if an individual is granted asylum, dependent relatives are granted the same.
  • Education, employment, and access to justice.

Despite these rights being protected under the 1951 Convention and other human rights treaties, refugees in various countries do not enjoy the full or equal legal protection of fundamental privileges. Many countries detain refugees in detention centers.

Created in 2004, the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that IDPs retain the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights as all people in their own country of citizenship or residence. They have the rights to basic humanitarian assistance (food, medicine, and shelter), to be protected from physical violence, to education, to freedom of movement and residence, to participate in political affairs, and to participate in economic activities. Further, they have the right to assistance from competent authorities in voluntary, dignified and safe return, and resettlement and local integration (including help in recovering lost property and possessions). It is the primary duty and responsibility of national authorities to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to IDPs within their jurisdiction. International humanitarian aid organizations play a significant role in assisting IDPs as well.

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  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6