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Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Internally Displaced Persons

How countries treat those who have been forced to flee persecution and human rights abuse elsewhere is a litmus test of their commitment to defending human rights and upholding humanitarian values. Yet, fifty years after its inception, the states that first established a formal refugee protection system appeared to be abandoning this principle, and the future of the international refugee regime was under serious threat.

The year 2000/2001 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of an international refugee protection regime, set up primarily by European states to respond to the needs of some 30 million people displaced during the Second World War. In December 1950, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established and in July 1951 an international instrument to protect the rights of refugees--the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 convention)--came into effect.

At the core of the international refugee regime is the fundamental right of any individual to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. Enshrined in article 14 (1) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of asylum recognizes that when all other forms of human rights protection have failed, individuals must be able to leave their country freely and seek refuge elsewhere. The availability of asylum can literally be a matter of life or death for those at risk of persecution or abuse.

A Changing Climate for Refugees

Until the 1990s most refugee movements were a consequence of Cold War politics, and refugees often had a strategic geopolitical value in the arena of superpower rivalry. Their existence was used either to discredit countries of origin, or to bolster the image of receiving countries and strengthen alliances with superpower partners, as in the case of Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras, Afghans in Pakistan, and Cambodians in Thailand.

Several factors coincided at the beginning of the 1990s to change the political environment for refugees. First, the end of the Cold War era caused refugees to lose much of their geopolitical and military value. Host countries preferred to establish good political and economic relations with their neighbors and refugees were viewed as a potential irritant. Many refugee hosting countries, affected by regional economic crises, claimed that fewer resources were available to host large, long-term refugee populations or fund lengthy and expensive asylum determination procedures. Refugees were made scapegoats for many countries' domestic problem and blamed for threatening national or regional security, draining resources, degrading the environment, and rising crime. Politicians shamelessly employed xenophobic rhetoric to win electoral support and, with the popular press, peddled images of "floods" of refugees and immigrants pouring into their countries. In the industrialized states, particularly, many governments became obsessed with erecting barriers to keep people out, rather than providing protection.

While this was occurring, the convergence of political and economic instability throughout much of the world with the increasing global accessibility of international communications and travel meant that larger numbers of people were on the move--some to escape the misery of economic privations, others to escape persecution, conflict, and gross human rights abuse. As legal channels of migration were curbed, people turned increasingly to alternative methods to reach their country of destination, including the services of opportunistic, exploitative and often dangerous human trafficking and smuggling rings that were able to circumvent routine migration controls. By the end of the 1990s, governments, particularly in industrialized states, viewed the trafficking and smuggling of persons as one of the most serious aspects of transnational organized crime and joined forces in a concerted drive to end the practice. Unfortunately, protecting the human rights of trafficked and smuggled persons was not the primary motive behind these efforts. Instead, combating human trafficking and smuggling became these governments' primary response to the asylum and migration issue. Much less attention was paid to why asylum seekers and migrants made use of such methods to reach their country of destination or to the root causes of such outflows, and even less to the need to preserve the right of all persons, regardless of their means of travel, to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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