Domestic Laws and Refugee Protection

Written by October 5, 2014 0 Comments

On September 22, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Israel issued a groundbreaking decision, ruling that the Israeli policy towards asylum-seekers and migrant workers violated the constitutional guarantees of the country’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. The decision mirrors a judgment by the same panel last year and has its origin in originates with a recent influx of refugees and migrant workers from Africa. In 2012, the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) amended the country’s so-called Anti-Infiltration Law to allow the state to detain undocumented migrant workers – many of them potential asylum seekers – for up to three years, and implemented harsh new penalties for aiding such individuals. In September 2013, the Court struck down the law, ruling it a violation of the Basic Law to hold asylum seekers for prolonged periods, and rejecting the use of detention policy as a deterrent for others seeking asylum. In the 2013 decision, the Court asserted, “Hard as the task with which Israel is forced to contend might be, we must remember that those who are already within our gates – are present among us. They are entitled to the right to freedom and right to dignity conferred by the Basic Laws to every person.”

In response to that decision, the Knesset passed a law allowing migrants to be held for up to a year in an open facility, and the state established the Holot facility in the Negev desert for this purpose. Holot currently houses about 2,200 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, each of whom must be present for three daily counts and none of whom may work. The Court’s recent ruling soundly rejected the Knesset’s revised approach and ordered that Holot be closed within 90 days. One of the Justices noted that “Many legal solutions can be considered — but they must be constitutional… A constitutional solution must reflect the balance between the general welfare and the individual’s welfare.”

(Stock Flickr Creative Commons)

(Stock Flickr Creative Commons)

The decision is notable for its use of domestic law to protect the refugees: while it may be safe to assume that international human rights and refugee protection principles played into the Court’s reasoning, the crux of the opinion seemingly grows out of Israel’s own domestic law and jurisprudence. In this regard, the case is reminiscent of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy. In upholding the rights of Libyan asylum seekers intercepted at sea, the Court closely considered the Refugee Convention, but ultimately decided on the basis of Italy’s domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR noted “Refugees attempting to escape Africa do not claim a right of admission to Europe. They demand only that Europe, the cradle of human rights idealism and the birthplace of the rule of law, cease closing its doors to people in despair who have fled from arbitrariness and brutality. That is a very modest plea, vindicated by the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Several months ago, James Hathaway wrote on this blog of states’ resistance to compliance with various provisions of the Refugee Convention. He pointed out the severe negative consequences of this reticence, and they are certainly troubling. Nevertheless, Israel’s recent decision and the Hirsi Jamaa case are welcome reminders that sometimes domestic and regional laws can do the trick. Domestic laws protect refugees, and – while it is desirable for states to fully embrace the Refugee Convention – their failure to do so does not leave asylum-seekers without rights or courts without the power to enforce those rights.

Of course, courts have sometimes ruled the other way. The Israeli Court’s decision and Hirsi Jamaa stand in stark contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, which upheld the President’s executive authority to repatriate intercepted Haitians seeking asylum following a bloody coup. The Sale case does, however, demonstrate the far reach of domestic courts’ decisions in cases regarding refugees. As discussed at a recent conference, the Sale case had global implications and was used to justify repatriation of asylum seekers worldwide. One can hope that more decisions protecting refugee rights through domestic law would have a similar impact.


UNHCR’s New Policy on Alternatives to Camps

Written by September 21, 2014 0 Comments

As noted recently by Jeff Crisp, UNHCR has recently adopted a new Policy on Alternatives to Camps.  Jeff suggested that UNHCR had been “secretive” about the policy.

Hardly.  I attach it here.

I view the policy of singular importance, adding another element to UNHCR’s move away from “care and maintenance” and toward rights and self-reliance.  Recent events show that in some cases camps remain the most effective and efficient means of providing protection and assistance to vulnerable refugees; and hosting states may, despite UNHCR’s best efforts, adopt encampment policies.  But the policy’s mandate that UNHCR “pursue alternatives to camps, whenever possible” has transformative potential by changing the heretofore prevailing “default” assumption of UNHCR operations.

Protecting “Crisis Migrants”

Written by August 18, 2014 0 Comments

How can the international community ensure more adequate and effective assistance, protection and solutions?

This post is co-authored by Susan Martin, Sanjula Weerasinghe, and Abbie Taylor.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied and separated minors from Mexico and Central America have fled their homes in the face of growing violence and undertaken treacherous journeys to other countries in the Americas since the end of 2011.[1] A groundbreaking report published by UNHCR in March 2014, based on in-depth interviews with 404 children who had recently arrived at the US border from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico found the majority (58%) had suffered or faced harms that indicated a need for international protection. While the reasons for flight were complex and interrelated, two main factors could be discerned: fear of violence by organized criminal armed groups and/or fear of violence in the home. In terms of immediate responses, a key finding is that unaccompanied and separated minors from these four countries must be screened individually for international protection needs. To obtain asylum, however, they need to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of specific characteristics (race, nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) if returned home. A well-founded fear of generalized violence will not necessarily qualify them for international protection even though they may well face life threatening conditions if required to return to their countries of origin.

More broadly, the situation in the Americas is indicative of the extent to which the world is witnessing unprecedented humanitarian need and challenges pertaining to mobility that do not fit within existing legal protection frameworks. According to UNHCR’s most recent Global Trends report, by the end of 2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. As the High Commissioner noted during his opening address at UNHCR’s June 2014 Consultations with NGOs, the scale and intensity of humanitarian need isn’t due solely to new conflicts, or old ones that never die, but is a product of a complex multiplicity of factors including mega trends, disasters, climate change, and other stressors that make life unsustainable in certain parts of the world.


Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –


Just in recent memory, the ongoing conflict in Syria has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions both within the country and across borders, while others remain trapped inside dwellings without access to basic assistance. In 2013 and 2014, in the Sahel, the intersection of drought and conflict has displaced millions and left others food insecure, with a growing risk of famine in South Sudan. In 2012, in villages in northern India and Nepal, seasonal rains prompted floods and landslides, overwhelming communities, killing thousands, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster in 2011, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. As highlighted above, the ongoing intense violence in Mexico and Central America has killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee within and across borders to escape an ‘omnipresent’ war, often undertaking perilous journeys in their bid to reach safety. And in the Arctic and South Pacific, rising temperatures are threatening the habitats and livelihoods of coastal communities, forcing them to seek out permanent relocation.


The Crisis Migration project, launched by Georgetown University in late 2011, sought to identify commonalities across movements and protection needs triggered by diverse humanitarian crises, as a first step towards enhancing protection and assistance. Among the preliminary findings are the following:

  • The project posits three principal ways in which movement occurs in the context of crises: displacement as a direct result of a crisis, anticipatory movement in the context of impending crises, and planned relocation, particularly for those who might be otherwise trapped in life-threatening situations. The ways in which people move may expose them to harm, such as those who put their lives in the hands of smugglers, boarding unsafe vessels to cross dangerous seas.
  • Underlying reasons for movement are multiple, interconnected and complex, making it difficult to determine the underlying “cause” of movement in many situations and bringing into question the merits of articulating responses based solely on this basis.
  • People experience different levels of vulnerability throughout the lifecycle of a humanitarian crisis and during and following movement, based on demographic, socio-economic, and other factors such as legal status. Coping capacities also erode or evolve according to the lifecycle of a crisis and the stage at which people move.
  • Beyond traditional categories of vulnerable populations, specific and targeted responses may be needed to address certain groups such as non-citizens, those who travel by sea, those who are trapped in place and require assistance to move out of harm’s way, and those who move to urban areas.
  • Protection and assistance needs exist at all phases of a crisis and during all phases of movement and a continuum of responses are needed that address preparedness, resilience and mitigation, assistance and protection during a crisis and during movement, and sustainable solutions.
  • Existing legal and institutional frameworks, including the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as they are currently interpreted and operationalized cannot accommodate all those with protection and assistance needs. Even where frameworks exist, in practice, there are often considerable gaps in implementation. So, while efforts should be undertaken to ensure that existing frameworks are duly used to accommodate so-called ‘new phenomena’, new responses are also needed that pay less attention to the reasons why people move but rather, examine the willingness and ability of the country experiencing a humanitarian crisis to assist, protect, and find solutions. This underlying philosophy is in line with the rationale of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide surrogate protection where an individual is unable or unwilling to benefit from the protection of his or her country of origin or habitual residence.

To learn more about the Crisis Migration project and its products and activities, click here.

[1] In the United States, the number of border apprehensions of these minors has increased exponentially, from 4,059 in FY 2011, 10,443 in FY 2012, 21,537 in FY13, and an estimated 60,000 by the end of FY 2014. This does not include numbers of adults, or adults and children from Mexico, of which numbers have also been rising. Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2013, UNHCR recorded a 712 percent increase in the number of children and adults from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras claiming asylum in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize. For more information, visit UNHCR Washington:

Climate Change & Migration

Written by August 15, 2014 0 Comments

Rising sea levels. Protracted drought. More frequent and powerful storms. The adverse effects of climate change are all too familiar. “Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted in its most recent report. Not only will natural hazards increasingly force affected populations to temporarily flee affected areas, but more gradual, irreversible changes will likely result in the loss of traditional homes and ways of life, forcing permanent displacement.

The authors of the report note that climate change can also indirectly raise the risk of violent conflict, precipitating further displacement. Indeed, the latest “Global Trends” report from UNHCR reveals that a majority of the estimated 51.2 million “persons of concern” live in “climate change hotspots.”

The fact that climate change and dramatic climatic events are likely to cause significant forced migration has led some to adopt the term “climate refugees” to describe such forced migrants.  UNHCR does not favor the term for two reasons. First, most displacement will occur within – not across – international borders. Second, a person who flees because of climate change is not likely—by that fact alone—to have “a well-founded fear of persecution” within the meaning of the 1951 Convention.  A decision by the New Zealand’s Court of Appeals in May provides an example.  The case rejected the appeal of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who sought to become the world’s first “climate change refugee.” Citing the rise in sea level and environmental degradation rendering his home in Kiribati unlivable, Teitiota claimed that he was subject to “persecution” under the Refugee Convention. The court determined that returning Mr. Teitiota and his family to Kiribati would not expose them to persecution, even if their living conditions were inferior to those in New Zealand. Moreover, the court found Teitiota’s argument to be an impermissibly broad interpretation of the Refugee Convention, emphasizing a need for human agency and a clear link to one of the Convention’s five enumerated grounds to constitute persecution.  (UNHCR would therefore feel more comfortable with terminology such as ‘external displacement’ to refer to cross-border movements driven by disasters or environmental factors, until States settle the terminology.)

This is not to say that existing international and regional refugee instruments could not be applicable in situations where the impact of climate change is an exacerbating factor of conflict, violence or public disorder. Thus, there can be a case for refugee protection in situations where harmful action or inaction by a Government in dealing with climate‐related events is related to one or more of the Refugee Convention grounds, such as denial of humanitarian assistance to a minority group.

UNHCR supports the Nansen Initiative, a state-led consultative process launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway. The Initiative’s primary goal is building consensus on key principles and elements regarding the protection of people displaced across international borders in the context of disasters, including those linked to the effect of climate change. Its steering committee is made up of nine countries, and it is currently conducting regional consultations with states, NGOs, academic institutions and other actors.

UNHCR is working within an inter-agency context with a range of partners, especially members of the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility along with a number of other multilateral and civil society organizations, including IOM, NRC/ IDMC, UNU, UNDP, ILO, OHCHR, Sciences Po (CERI) and Refugees International.  The Advisory Group focuses on human mobility both as an adaptation strategy and as a dimension of loss and damage, with the aim of leveraging evidence and enhancing knowledge and understanding of human mobility prompted by climate change. The group’s work informs several major interrelated policy processes on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development that are expected to culminate in agreements in 2015.

While forced migration due to climate change will not ordinarily be a basis for protection under the 1951 Convention, is there nonetheless a philosophical argument that the principles underlying the concept of refugee support extension of international protection to such persons?

An article by Matthew Lister,* forthcoming in the Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, provides such an argument. While Lister agrees with the New Zealand court that the Refugee Convention, as it stands, does not permit the inclusion of climate change migrants, he explores the normative justifications underlying the Convention to find that the its rationale may extend beyond its legal language.  He argues that an approach that grants refugee status to a limited portion of climate change migrants would avoid the need for any fundamental shift in the prevailing understanding of refugee protection.

Lister defines “refugee” by looking at the obligations of the international community under the current refugee regime. He identifies two primary principles of that regime: non-refoulement and the provision of a durable solution. If any climate change migrants require both of these protections, they should fall within the same definition as refugees seeking protection on one of the five Convention grounds.

Distinguishing between short-term displacement, such as that experienced after a natural disaster, and long-term displacement, such as that expected in low lying nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu, Lister concludes that the latter circumstance follows the logic of the Convention. Residents forced to flee a sinking country are both unable to return to their country of origin and require some sort of durable solution in another country. In other cases, such as that of rising sea waters in Bangladesh, displaced residents will be able to relocate internally and would therefore also fall outside the definition of refugee.


* The Global Views blog is meant to serve as a forum for refugee policy discussions. UNHCR does not necessarily endorse the views expressed by Professor Lister. 

Volker Türk on International Protection

Written by July 7, 2014 0 Comments

I recommend perusing Volker Türk’s statement on International Protectiondelivered this week at the UNHCR Standing Committee meetings. Volker, as readers of the blog may know, is the Director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection. His statement provides a full and up-to-date review of UNHCR’s wide-ranging protection agenda, including  protection in conflict, mixed migratory movements and protection at sea, detention, gender equality, durable solutions, and statelessness.

I welcome your comments on Volker’s statement, which can be found here.

Cancer in Refugees in Jordan and Syria

Written by June 25, 2014 0 Comments

Refugee situations in the 21st century are increasingly diverse, and expanding from low-income settings to both low- and middle-income settings alike. While infectious disease and acute malnutrition remain major challenges for millions of refugees, the existence and treatment of worldwide, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, are relatively neglected. Cancer in refugees causes substantial strain on the health systems of host countries, due to factors including high expense of treatments, dependence on specialty physician skills, and the challenges of continuous care and avoidance of treatment interruptions due to displacement. The UNHCR’s Exceptional Care Committees (EECs) have developed standard operating procedures to address expensive medical treatment for refugees in host countries, creating standards for eligibility and maximum payment.

Paul Spiegel (MD), Adam Khalifa (MD), and Farrah J. Mateen (MD) have authored a paper addressing these issues entitled “Cancer in refugees in Jordan and Syria between 2009 and 2012: challenges and the way forward in humanitarian emergencies.” They present data from funding applications for cancer treatments for refugees in Jordan (2010-2012) and Syria (2009-2012), and suggest a series of recommendations to improve prevention and treatment, including, for example, innovative financing schemes, balancing primary and emergency care with expensive referral care, and electronic cancer registries.

The full paper may be accessed here.


Home Alone?

Written by June 23, 2014 1 Comment

“Ninety-nine percent of refugees in the world want to go home.”  “The one thing that all refugees want is to go back to their own country.”  “Most refugees desperately want to go back to where they came from.”

Such statements, drawn from UNHCR publications produced over the past decade, initially appear to make perfect sense. Having been forced to leave their own country in an involuntary manner, it seems logical that refugees would want to return to their homeland once it is safe for them to do so.

An Iraqi woman from Mosul carries her son at the Garmava Transit Camp, which is located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

An Iraqi woman from Mosul carries her son at the Garmava Transit Camp, which is located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But the reality can be quite different.

There are a number of reasons why refugees might not choose to repatriate, even if they are offered transport back to their country of origin and reintegration assistance once they arrive there.

First, refugees are spending increasingly long periods of time in exile—20 years or more in many cases. Even if they are not officially allowed to integrate in their country of asylum and be recognized as citizens of that state, they may nevertheless establish successful livelihoods, develop strong social networks, and give birth to children who have never been to or even speak the language of their putative country of origin. For such refugees, going “home” might be more of a wrench than staying put.

Fourteen-year-old Twermeh studies in the middle school in the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Northern Thailand. Twermeh is a Karenni refugee from Myanmar and was born in exile in the camp.

Fourteen-year-old Twermeh studies in the middle school in the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Northern Thailand. Twermeh is a Karenni refugee from Myanmar and was born in exile in the camp.

Second, even if conditions at home have stabilized, the violent nature of the events that refugees have endured and which forced them to flee in the first place might have been so traumatic that they simply cannot think of returning to the place where those atrocities took place.

Such scenarios are envisaged in an often neglected clause of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which states that refugees should not be expected to return to their own country if they can demonstrate “compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution.” Many refugees from current conflicts involving intense cruelty and large-scale killings, such as those in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, seem unlikely to repatriate for precisely this reason.

Third, we live in an increasingly mobile world, and refugees are no exception. A growing proportion of the world’s exiled populations do not want to go home, but want to move on—by means of resettlement or migration—to places that offer them greater safety, better opportunities for them and their children, and the chance to be reunited with family members and diaspora communities.

Ashraf (R) and Hany (L) enjoy a special moment, briefly escaping from their suffering and loss. Both have a bleak future as the war enters a fourth year in their blighted homeland of Syria.

Ashraf (R) and Hany (L) enjoy a special moment, briefly escaping from their suffering and loss. Both have a bleak future as the war enters a fourth year in their blighted homeland of Syria.

And once they have moved on, such refugees will probably not choose to go home until they have acquired the nationality and passport of an industrialized state, meaning that they will have the option of leaving should their previous country of origin descend into chaos again.

Unfortunately, the international community has failed to take adequate note of these trends, and have grown increasingly attached to the notion that repatriation is the only logical outcome. Thus in 1951, when the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was established, the organization’s statute gave equal billing to two solutions for refugees: “the voluntary repatriation of refugees” and “their assimilation within new national communities.”

In successive decades, however, the states which govern UNHCR through its Executive Committee increasingly prioritized the former of these approaches. In 1983, for example, the Committee stated that repatriation was “the most desirable solution for refugee problems.” And in 1996, it described voluntary repatriation as “the most preferred solution” to refugee situations.

As indicated by the quotes at the beginning of this blog, the international community continues to think about solutions for refugees in this very limited way. And that is unfortunate.

The time has passed when refugees are prepared to live in camps for years or decades on end, in the distant hope that they might be able to return to their own country one day. Increasingly, they are leaving their camps or bypassing them altogether, taking up residence in cities or moving on to other countries and continents where they find a more productive way of life.

New arrivals from the Horn of Africa travel by truck at the Kharaz Refugee Camp in the south of Yemen.

New arrivals from the Horn of Africa travel by truck at the Kharaz Refugee Camp in the south of Yemen.

That is exactly why refugees from so many countries—Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria, to name but three—are now making their way to Libya and other North African countries, hoping to cross the Mediterranean and begin a new life in Europe. And that is exactly why refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka have been making their way to Australia, rather than remaining in Indonesia.

Given the experiences they have been through in their countries of origin and transit, and in view of the aspirations which they have developed, we should not expect such refugees to be queuing up for what others have erroneously deemed to be the best solution for them.

World Refugee Day Remarks

Written by June 20, 2014 0 Comments

We announce today a startling and deeply disturbing fact: that there are now more than 50 million persons who have been forced from their homes because of conflict. On every continent, in every region, human beings flee violence and seek the safety that international law and international institutions help provide.

I mention law here not simply because I am trained as a lawyer. But because it reminds us, that while UNHCR and our partners are providing shelter and food and medical care and other forms of assistance, at the core of our work is our protection function. Of course, saving lives must be our highest priority, but once those force to flee have received emergency care we must immediately turn our attention to human rights.

The protection of refugees and other persons forced from their homes is not an act of charity; it is not an act of noblesse oblige; and it is more than a moral obligation that the fortunate owe the less fortunate.

It is a matter of rights.

  • Persons forced to flee have a right to seek and receive asylum.
  • They have a right not be “pushed back” at sea or arbitrarily detained upon arrival.
  • They have rights, under the Refugee Convention, to freedom of movement and to work within countries in which they have been recognized as refugees.
  • Persons forced to flee have a right not to be discriminated against because of their race or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
  • Women forced from their homes have a right not to be forced into survival sex.
  • Children forced to flee because of conflict have a right not to be forced to serve as child soldiers.

As persons forced from their homes have rights, so too the international community has responsibilities.

  • Nations must share the burden imposed on countries that have opened their borders to those forced to flee.
  • They are responsible for the humane treatment of asylum-seekers, and the development of fair and efficient asylum systems.
  • And the international community has a responsibility to provide solutions to refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons—who sometimes remain in uncertain legal status for decades.

These rights and responsibilities belong to all of us; they are affirmed collectively to provide for our protection and to remind us of our duties.

We recognize each World Refugee Day that we all stand in the shoes of those forced to flee; we are in a refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; we are crossing into Uganda fleeing violence in South Sudan; we have moved with our children to be safe from the new fighting in Iraq; we live in impoverished and distressed Rohingya settlements in Myanmar and Bangladesh; we watch our children and grandchildren grow up as refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya and the Mae La camp in Thailand and the Sheder camp in Ethiopia; we are fearful that our daughters will be attacked and raped in the eastern DRC or kidnapped in Nigeria; we are on a leaky ship in the Adaman Sea, navigating the Windward Passage or nearing the island of Lampedusa; we know the children of our neighbors who have been smuggled and trafficked into Sudan and over the southwest border of the United States.

This World Refugee Day takes special note of refugee families. But we see ourselves in the faces and lives, the despair and resourcefulness, of displaced persons everywhere because we are part of the human family.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Geneva, June 20, 2014




What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Reaches Europe

Written by June 13, 2014 0 Comments

The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria has led to an inundation of refugees in Syria’s neighboring and not-so-neighboring countries. Bulgaria, for instance, has processed over 9,000 asylum applications since January 1, 2013. The country with the lowest GDP in the European Union (EU), Bulgaria has nevertheless emerged as a leading destination for Syrian refugees in Europe: among European countries, its Syrian refugee population is exceeded only by Sweden, Germany, and Italy.

Bulgaria faces significant social and economic challenges. Its National Electric Company and its National Health Insurance Fund are on the brink of bankruptcy, and violent xenophobic protests have occurred in recent years.

By all accounts, the conditions of refugees in Bulgaria–from Syria and elsewhere–are punishing, if not dire. In one camp, Haaretz reports, there are no beds, only thick wooden boards scattered across the floors, and the indoor temperatures routinely dropped below zero. “Whatever the horrors of war they left behind,” a PBS correspondent remarked grimly last December, “nothing prepared these Syrians for a European welcome as warm as this.”

In January, UNHCR recommended the halting of transfer of refugees to Bulgaria under the Dublin II Regulation, an EU law that assigns asylum applications to EU member states on the basis of family ties and other criteria. UNHCR’s assessment at the time concluded that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria routinely faced arbitrary detention, lacked access to basic services (such as food and healthcare), and were denied fair and consistent asylum procedures.

Three months later, after undertaking a reevaluation of the country’s asylum situation, UNHCR amended its position, citing “numerous improvements that have been made to reception conditions and the asylum procedure in Bulgaria since the beginning of the year.” Although “there may be reasons precluding transfers under Dublin for certain groups or individuals”–such as asylum-seeking children or refugees in need of health care–these remaining deficiencies, the UNHCR report concluded, no longer justified a general suspension of Dublin transfers to Bulgaria.

UNHCR’s updated report on the situation of refugees in Bulgaria did not consider at length “push-backs” or the practice of preventing asylum-seekers from entering a receiving country in contravention of international law. (Some non-entrée measures, such as the collective rejection of a group of people without consideration of each person’s individual circumstances, are explicitly prohibited under EU law.)

Accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border have been rife and widespread. “Violence against refugees involving beatings, humiliation, and disregard of human dignity continuously takes place at the border, in detention camps, and on the streets throughout [Bulgaria],” Border Monitoring Bulgaria (BMB) reported back in April.

Later that month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report on the conditions of Bulgaria’s borders and migrant detention centers. The report, “Containment Plan: Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants,” catalogued summary expulsions and rejections of asylum-seekers, physical abuse by Bulgarian police (including beatings and the use of electric shocks), and the confiscation of personal possessions by border guards, culminating in the unflinching conclusion: “At almost every stage of their efforts to seek refuge in Bulgaria, [asylum-seekers] have faced physical and bureaucratic barriers, violent abuse, and hardship.”


The accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border should not be viewed in isolation: reports of illegal non-entrée measures have been documented across southern and eastern Europe, from Spain and Italy to Greece and Ukraine. This past April, Amnesty International published “Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear: Migrants and Refugees Pushed Back at Europe’s Border,” a report highlighting the expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving either in the Aegean Sea or at the land border between Greece and Turkey.

After interviewing 67 asylum-seekers (mostly Syrian refugees), the report found that more than half had experienced illegal push-backs at least once, with some incidents betraying “a complete disregard for the safety of migrants and refugees” on the part of government officials–including the abandonment of asylum-seekers at sea “in unseaworthy vessels.”

Citing the widespread mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers by Bulgarian and Greek officials, both HRW and Amnesty International recommended that the EU halt the transfer of asylum-seekers to both Bulgaria and Greece under the Dublin II Regulation.

The accounts of non-entrée measures by officials in Greece, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, as well as other abuses against asylum-seekers documented by news and human rights organizations, merit a solemn and diligent response from the national governments of both Greece and Bulgaria, including the tightening of oversight of state actions taken at national borders.

“Bottom-Up Innovation” by Refugees

Written by May 29, 2014 0 Comments

There has been an “innovation turn” in the humanitarian world. A number of United Nations organizations, including UNHCR, have been pioneering the drawing upon of ideas and language more commonly used by the private sector in order to rethink humanitarian response. This work has offered an opportunity to transform old ways of working. Across the humanitarian system the dominant part of that debate has focused on improving organizational response. What has been neglected is a recognition that “affected communities,” including displaced populations themselves, engage in innovation on a daily basis, adapting to new markets, social networks, and regulatory environments as a matter of necessity.

At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, we set up the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2012 to inform this debate, focusing our research on innovation by affected communities, and in particular by refugees and displaced populations. We have been privileged to work in partnership with UNHCR on much of this work. Drawing upon ideas from human-centered design, indigenous innovation, and participatory methodology, we have tried to shift the lens from “top-down” towards “bottom-up” innovation, premised upon the recognition that refugees themselves have skills, talents, and aspirations, are frequently entrepreneurial, and often use and adapt technology.

We have begun with an initial focus on refugees’ livelihoods-innovation in Uganda, carrying out mixed methods, participatory research across three sites: the capital, Kampala, and two settlements, Nakivale and Kyangwali. Our decision to focus on Uganda has not been accidental: it is a country which, unlike many, allows refugees the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. It allows exploration of the boundaries of the possible when refugees are given basic entitlements and opportunities. A team of over forty refugee researchers and enumerators, led by Ugandan research coordinators, carried out qualitative research and a survey of over 1500 refugees, based on two core questions: 1) how do refugees engage with the private sector, and 2) how do they use technology?

The results have been fascinating, and our preliminary findings will be published next month in a report called Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions. The report organizes the data around five core “myths”: 1) that refugees are economically isolated; 2) that their livelihoods activities are homogenous; 3) that refugees are a burden on host states; 4) that they are technologically illiterate; 5) that they are dependent on international assistance. In each case, our data challenges or fundamentally nuances these ideas. It shows vibrant and complex economic systems that thrive despite the constraints placed upon them. Whether in the formal or informal economies, displaced populations adapt their own self-protection and self-help strategies, which include a range of highly innovative responses.

The economic systems we have encountered in Uganda are nested in much broader structures, with connections across communities, with the national host economy, and transnationally. Far from being isolated, we discovered, for instance, that the Congolese bitenge trade connects the refugee settlements to urban centers as well as factories as far afield as China and India. Refugees make a great contribution to the host state economy through their role as consumers, producers, employers, and employees. To take the example of employment: of urban refugees that employ others, 40% employ Ugandans, while 43% of urban refugees who are employed work for nationals of the host state.

In terms of technology, mobile phone and internet use is greater than in the general population, with 96% of refugees in urban areas and 71% in rural settlements having mobile phones, and 51% and 11%, respectively, having access to the internet, often using these technologies for income-generating activities. Many refugees adapt their own appropriate technologies – from Congolese wooden bicycles to sustainable rain-water cooling systems for maize-milling, to video games parlors based entirely on reassembled second-hand equipment – leading to a vast array of livelihoods-innovations. Far from being uniquely dependent on humanitarian assistance, only 1% lack any independent income-generating source, and in urban areas 78% receive no international assistance at all. In prioritizing needs, many want educational opportunities and business support rather than just financial assistance.

Through these findings and others, we have recognized that refugees have incredible capacities for innovation. Better understanding the economic systems of displaced populations offers a great opportunity to rethink the very basis of how we do assistance. It enables us to think about market-based interventions that build on what already exists, to remove market distortions, and to improve the ability of displaced populations to more effectively engage with markets. Unlocking this potential stands to benefits the displaced, hosts, and donors. With the right kind of facilitation, it may transform humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities.