Refugees International are advocates for the protection of displaced people and promote solutions to displacement crises. Founded in 1979 as a citizens' movement to protect Indochinese refugees, it has since had a tremendous impact around the globe and was instrumental in demanding and delivering aid for displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What work does Refugees International do in Africa?
Refugees International sheds light on the needs of people that are forced to flee their homes, their needs of protection and assistance, and we succeed in providing solutions to policy makers in helping those people. We are an independent institution, we do not receive money from the government and this brings the benefit of being seen as an impartial organisation.
How do gaps in the international protection of refugees call for the involvement of non-governmental organisations?
The reality is that the majority of refugees do not live in camps, the structures set up by the international community, or with the authorisation of governments, they live in urban settings. There are, for example, hundreds of thousands of Somalians living in Nairobi and vast numbers living in other countries such as Djibouti and Yemen. Lots of asylum seekers travel south, down the continent, and arrive in South Africa. In the whole continent, there are around 400,000 people asking for asylum for individual processing and South Africa deals with more than half of this. The reality is different, governments have to reconsider their way of operating and assisting refugees in urban settlements.
Given the negative perception of asylum seekers, how are political pressures to exclude refugees balanced against the legal obligations of the OAU Convention 1969?
Refugees are treated differently everywhere. It’s worth talking about a positive example – the paragon of the Tanzanian government that welcomed Burundian and Rwandan refugees. Over the 90s and even the last decade, hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed into Tanzania, the government was very hospitable and offered international assistance to provide them with solutions beyond just repatriation. In this example, 150,000 Burundians were granted citizenship, especially younger generations and those born in refugees camps. Less positive examples include cases in South Africa where public opinion has become more xenophobic and more hostile towards foreigners and refugees. This is a situation that is increasingly difficult to handle by the authorities. Despite some policies, they also face the additional hurdle of local constituencies developing xenophobic feelings against foreigners coming into the country.
South Africa, almost uniquely, has a very progressive constitution in line with the International Bill of Rights. For example, several Constitutional Court decisions have been used all around the world to bring about conditions of equality, why then do these feelings of xenophobia still exist?
After visiting the country and analysing the legal framework, I think the move between implementation, secondary and tertiary legislation simply has not happened. Implementation is the big problem and, socially speaking, it is a delicate process. The new government came into power after decades of struggle, against a background of inequality. After almost 20 years of not being able to address some of the promises and enthusiasm that was shared in 1994, the position of the government is all the more uncertain. A government that is outwardly very open and welcoming to foreigners whilst the living conditions of nationals declines maintains a very tenuous position and this will only inhibit or delay implementation of its progressive legal framework. I believe there should be co-responsibility between the South African government, the Southern African Development Community, a portion of the United Nations and the international financial institutions, all of which should be much more engaged. This is not a stereotypically South African problem - there are so many refugees amongst the continent seeking assistance. I believe the South African government should respect its constitution to at least provide access for asylum seekers and opportunity to refugees in genuine cases of persecution. To address xenophobia it must go beyond this, the refugee process is linked to wider problems in the management of human mobility, human trafficking, and the fluxes of people seeking economic opportunity.
What role will climate change play amongst these problems?
A better understanding of how climate change will relate to internally displacement and refugees is urgently required. Even if we are unable to currently trace a relationship between climate change and natural disaster, we can definitely see an increasing frequency of natural disasters, for example floods and drought, and with this the monetary dimensions for disasters are also becoming more demanding. Regardless of the justification, we need to address these cases – how the humanitarian community and the state can better prepare themselves and how can they respond better when these events occur. It is a question of better preparedness, putting resources in place to mitigate the impact of the disaster, so we need to adapt the old humanitarian framework, including displaced people and refugees to respond to their needs. There are two things that need to be taken into consideration. Firstly we have identified it is more likely that there will be internally displaced people than refugees, and secondly, we have identified that countries vulnerable to internal conflict and civil strife are also more vulnerable to natural disasters - they are the countries that are less prepared and able to respond. We are at the beginning of this process, but is something we must address as a priority, and Refugees International have already conducted two missions to Pakistan and Colombia to investigate the abilities of governments to respond to the floods in those countries.
Are there signs international consensus is already changing?
There are some positive examples with regard to internally displaced persons. When fifteen African states ratify it, the Kampala Convention, created in late 2009, will become the first regionally-binding document for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons. Currently nine states have ratified it. In other parts of the world, change is not a priority on the political agenda and it is still very challenging to gauge the ability of governments to develop progressive domestic legislation. When they do so the typical issue of the gap between regulation and implementation and the issues of refugee visibility will once again arise. However, the significant change in international relations, and the platform for hope is the reconceptualisation of sovereignty as a responsibility. It does not only provide rights to the state but also duties to protect and assist people within their borders, to respond to them and live up to their constitutional and legislative responsibilities.