Who is a refugee? On the surface, it seems that the answer is straightforward: According to the UN's 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who has been forced outside his or her home country by conflict, violence and persecution, and who is unable to return due to the well-founded fear they will be targeted as a result of their ethnicity, beliefs or social identities.
Part of the reason the Refugee Convention was drafted was in response to the extreme suffering to which people fleeing violence and persecution are often exposed. In order to protect refugees, the convention sought to establish their rights and to outline the obligations that states have to protect them.
But in 2017, while the global legal consensus on the rights of refugees remains intact, the humanitarian spirit that led to the convention appears to be in short supply. Around the world, states are using the language of refugee law not to address the suffering of people fleeing war, violence and deprivation, but to find ways to avoid helping them. By confining their international obligations only to those who fit the narrow definition set out by the UN convention, states can then set out about forcibly preventing the arrival of anyone else seeking refuge.
(Photo credit: © Lena Mucha)
Keeping borders closed
And so we have the spectacle of leading member states of the international community, including traditional champions of international humanitarian law, jumping through rhetorical hoops to close their doors to as many desperate arrivals as possible. By seeking to draw a line between "legitimate" refugees and other migrants, governments in some destination countries also seek minimize their obligations and keep their borders closed.
From a humanitarian perspective, this approach is an abrogation of the very purpose of creating international refugee law in the first place: namely, the prevention and alleviation of suffering for some of the world's most vulnerable people. Doctors Without Borders delivers emergency medical care to people who have been forcibly displaced by violence, conflict and persecution in more than 60 countries around the world. We do so not according to legal definitions of who should receive care, but according to the humanitarian needs we witness first-hand.
In Mexico, that means we treat victims of abuse, sexual violence and torture at the hands of gangs along the country's underground migration route. Regardless of the circumstances that led these patients to leave their home countries and risk their lives along one of the world's most notorious travel zones -- and our own data indicate that many felt they had no choice if they wanted to escape targeted violence and persecution in places like Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador -- we see their suffering, and their lack of alternatives for care, as a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance.
In Libya, and through our search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean Sea, we treat victims of abuse, violence and neglect who are caught in a grim migratory netherworld run by people smugglers; in Bangladesh, we provide care to vulnerable members of the Rohingya minority trapped in stateless limbo on the border with Myanmar, where many are unable to access basic healthcare.
We don't know how many of these patients would be considered "legitimate" refugees, legally deserving of care and protection from members of the international community; we know only what we see when they enter our clinics: the marks of abuse and torture, the indicators of malnutrition, the exposure to disease. We treat them according to their needs, and seek to alleviate their suffering to the degree we possibly can.
A global migration crisis
On June 20, the world marks World Refugee Day, an observance created by the United Nations in 2000, one year before the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Status of Refugees. It is an occasion intended to draw attention to the collective plight of the world's refugee populations. In 2001, the first year it was formally celebrated, that population was roughly 12 million people; in 2016, the year of the UN's most recent estimate, the official number of refugees worldwide had increased to 22.5 million, and is still growing. That in turn is less than half of the 65 million people currently estimated to be displaced overall, the largest number at any time since the Second World War.
World Refugee Day is an important opportunity to focus attention on the challenges faced by people seeking refuge. But it will also be a hollow event, one that fails to honour the humanitarian intentions of the convention it celebrates, if it remains focused only on those who have successfully managed to claim refugee status in host countries, rather than on the larger spectrum of needs experienced by those who have been displaced.
If we are truly serious about celebrating the legacy of our efforts to protect refugees and to alleviate their suffering, then we cannot let legal definitions determine the scope of our humanitarian action. The spirit of World Refugee Day is to recognize the challenges faced by some of the world's most vulnerable people. A good place to start would be by being honest about who refugees really are, what their challenges are and what we can do to help them.
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