Novelist and United Nations goodwill ambassador Khaled Hosseini often shares about his childhood in Afghanistan. Whereas for many the word Afghanistan might only bring to mind images of dilapidated buildings and emaciated bodies, for Hosseini it brings memories of a country at peace with itself before the Soviet war era. Peaceful days when there was childhood on the streets of Kabul and chattering about the weather. If you get the chance to engage refugees in conversation, they might share with you lighthearted stories from the days when there was peace in their countries. This year's World Refugee Day has come at a time when there seems to be waning compassion for the plight of refugees. This piece highlights some of the pressing challenges being faced by refugees.
UK – Rwanda asylum deal
The British government is adamant about sending asylum seekers to Rwanda despite legal challenges and strong criticism from UN High Commissioner for Refugees, faith leaders, and Prince Charles. On the 14th of June, the first flight that was intended to take asylum seekers to Rwanda could not take off following a last-minute injunction from the European Human Rights Court. The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom (UK), Priti Patel, seemed unfazed by the block to the plan, indicating that the government would prepare for the next flight.
Rwanda received $150 million for the deal to take on UK's asylum responsibilities towards refugees. In a politically expedient move to bolster the unpopular deal, Boris Johnson insisted that Rwanda was a safe country globally recognised for welcoming and integrating migrants. This is even though not so long ago in July 2022, Rita French, UK's International Ambassador for Human Rights, expressed concern over alleged human rights violations in Rwanda, including deaths in custody and torture. The UK-Rwanda asylum seeker deal reveals a much deeper issue about responsibility and burden sharing.
Responsibility and burden sharing
It is acknowledged in the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa that the refugee problem requires international cooperation and burden sharing. Recently, through the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees countries reaffirmed this global responsibility. Nevertheless, 86 percent of the world’s 22 million forced migrants and refugees are hosted in 10 developing countries with limited capacity to receive and assist because of their own internal struggles. Uganda, the leading host in Africa has 1,553,063 refugees. With new asylum seekers arriving in Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo as clashes intensify between the Congolese army and M23 rebels, the population is increasing. Other major host countries in Africa include Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan.
In an ideal situation, developed countries pursuant to their international law obligations should be sponsoring resettlement programmes, and increasing funding to UN agencies supporting refugees in developing countries. Instead, the opposite is happening. European countries are intercepting refugees at sea and returning them to countries where their lives are at risk. This practice is in violation of the non-refoulment principle which constitutes the cornerstone of international refugee law. As indicated above, the UK is offshoring the itsy-bitsy responsibility it is getting to East Africa which is already overburdened. Funding from developed countries to UN agencies that provide for refugees has been on a decline and this has led to the World Food Programme cutting food rations in East and West Africa. Compassion is waning.
Xenophobia in South Africa
In South Africa, asylum seekers and refugees are living in constant fear for their lives with bouts of xenophobic attacks being reported in various parts of the country. Operation Dudula has been the most recent movement to sprout, bringing terror to black foreign nationals living in townships. Its founder, Nhlanhla Lux has blamed undocumented immigrants for the rising levels of crime, drug dealing, and prostitution syndicates in townships and the inner city of Johannesburg.
It is a cause for concern that asylum seekers and refugees constitute a considerable proportion of the undocumented population. The fault lies with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), and not asylum seekers and refugees. The DHA is failing to efficiently and justly decide asylum claims and renew documents. As a result, many are left undocumented, unable to access their fundamental rights, and at risk of being necklaced by vigilante groups overzealous about rationing the country's limited resources. Compassion is waning on the part of DHA and citizens that wield machetes and strike their own brothers and sisters.
What then shall we say in celebrating World Refugee Day? There is a need for more compassion towards the cause of refugees scattered across the world. The kind that results in the welcoming and integration of refugees into host communities. Compassion that leads to significant increases in funding allocated towards promoting a life of dignity for asylum seekers and refugees.
Finally, this piece calls upon those entrusted with positions of power, whose actions or inaction affects hundreds of people, to act responsibly and in so doing nip migration flows in the bud. Prevention is always better when it comes to displacement.