By Thalif Deen
In recent days, some countries are building barriers to limit the flow of refugees to Europe. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS
United Nations (IPS) – When the United Nations commemorated “Zero Discrimination Day” on March 1, there was an implicit commitment by the 193 member states to abhor all forms of discrimination – including against women, minorities, indigenous people, gays and lesbians and those suffering from AIDS.
But apparently there seems to be one notable exception – refugees and migrants fleeing to Europe from war ravaged countries, largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Despite a commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention, some of the European countries are building barriers against the flow of refugees in violation of an international treaty.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is greatly concerned about the increasing number of border restrictions along the Balkan land route, including in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
“Such border restrictions are not in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention [relating to the Status of Refugees]and its 1967 protocol, because individual determination of refugee status and assessment of individual protection needs are not made possible,” he warned last week.
Ban said the number of asylum seekers entering Greece from Turkey continues unabated, and that the border closures are creating a difficult situation in Greece. Meanwhile, Turkey is already hosting in excess of 2.6 million refugees and asylum seekers.
Ban said he is fully aware of the pressure felt by many European countries. However, he calls on all countries to keep their borders open, and to act in a spirit of responsibility-sharing and solidarity, including through expanding legal pathways to access asylum.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 1.5 million people claimed asylum last year in Western countries, mostly members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
This was the highest number ever, and nearly twice the number of people recorded in 2014. The largest number of refugees and migrants – about one million – found their way to Germany.
The United Nations says one out of every two people who crossed the Mediterranean last year, or half a million people, were Syrians escaping the five-year-old military conflict there, while Afghans accounted for 20 percent and Iraqis about 7.0 percent.
Asked about the treaty commitment, Ambassador Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS: “It is disappointing that countries, given their recent history and proclaimed commitment to human rights, which could be expected to champion the principles reflected in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, are now turning their backs on it for sheer expedience and on those fleeing persecution, rape, turmoil and death.”
They seem to be ready to blatantly and without embarrassment sacrifice their own principles, the human rights treaty framework and the moral high ground which they have occupied in other situations, he added.
Kohona pointed out that the 1951 Convention resulted from an international effort to deal with the millions crossing borders after the World War and those escaping religious, political and other forms of persecution in an orderly manner.
He said not much was thought while millions of refugees fled Asian or African turmoil into other Asian and African countries. But it has now become controversial given that these non-European refugees are fleeing into Europe.
Those fleeing to Europe had little or no role in the breakdown of their own societies largely caused by external interventions, he said.
“One wonders whether latent racism has dropped all pretences, and again raised its ugly head in Europe and sacrificed high principle in the process,” said Kohona, a former Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Last month, in another move against refugees and migrants, the Danish Government was planning to confiscate some of the belongings of refugees, including money and jewellery as a means to subsidise their living costs.
Asked for a comment, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said the Secretary General has spoken with Danish officials about his concerns and “we’ve had the head, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Mr. [Peter] Sutherland, the Secretary General’s envoy dealing specifically with migration, have expressed their concerns to a number of countries about the recent restrictions.”
“Our bottom line is that all refugees need to be treated with respect for their dignity and we want to make sure that their basic rights are upheld,” he added.
“We are aware of different countries’ concerns about the rate of migration. You’ve seen the sort of events we are going to be holding over the course of this year to make sure that those concerns are expressed and are dealt with, but at the same time, these are people who are suffering already as they go on the move and their suffering should not be augmented by actions taken by potential receiving countries,” Haq said.
The Secretary-General, who was quick to point out that the vast majority of refugees are hosted by developing countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, said there is a real need for responsibility-sharing at the global level.
This will be one of the key issues in the General Assembly’s Summit on large movements of refugees and migrants — that will be held in New York on 19 September, he noted.
Asked about some European countries hinting at amending the Convention, in order to absolve themselves of the responsibility of welcoming refugees, Kohona told IPS: “Of course the Convention can be amended, but only by the parties to it and in accordance with its provisions. But not all members of the UN are parties to it.”
Therefore, he said, the UN can only be a facilitator in any effort at amending the Convention. It also permits parties to withdraw – also in accordance with its provisions. Withdrawal would inevitably raise questions about the high moral values championed by those countries in different circumstances, he declared.
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