If Refugees are a Humanitarian Crisis, Why Aren't Refugee Rights Human Rights?
Nancy Giesel, MIMS student
The intersection of human rights and the migrant is one that is deep and complex, especially when speaking of “forced migrants” or refugees. With the rising focus on refugee issues in modern times, it is essential to know the human rights context for these issues and the rights that refugees have when fleeing their home countries. Seeking asylum is a human right, but it is not always recognized as such. To understand human rights and how they affect refugees in the modern age, it is crucial to examine the various human rights documents that deal with the rights of refugees and use those documents to place these rights in a theoretical framework.
According to the natural rights theory, there are certain inalienable rights that are guaranteed to people solely because they are human. This category clearly includes migrants. These rights exist on two levels: moral and legal. This means that human rights exist in the moral sense, in that they should be guaranteed to all persons and then the legal framework is constructed to protect these moral human rights. Human rights also have a non-discriminatory nature. This means that they are applied to people equally, regardless of nationality or background. This is not always the case, because of the perceived risk of accepting refugees and the power dynamics between nation-states. According to Alexander Betts, "The challenge, though, is that typically the taking in of refugees is perceived by states as imposing economic, social, and political costs. […] That is one of the reasons international refugee law exists: to create a set of norms that obligates governments to a reciprocal commitment to support refugees" (Betts, 366).
After World War II, two separate organizations were created to protect human rights and refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The two organizations overlap in the sense that refugees are protected by human rights in many ways. In fact, human rights are prevalent in many levels of the refugee process. It is often human rights violations that act as the so-called “push” factor for many refugees, so it is imperative to protect these rights in the receiving country.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a groundbreaking document that listed the rights of man in a clear and concise manner. Created in 1948, it followed the vow to never let the types of atrocities that occurred during World War II to happen again. In Article 14 (1), the document referencing the need to protect people fleeing persecution in their home country, stating, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” (UDHR). This is monumental because it states that refugees have a right to asylum and to be free from persecution in their home country, and puts said responsibility on the international community. The downfall of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that it cannot be enforced on an international scale. Therefore, it is the responsibility of each nation-state to do their part in “burden-sharing” the needs of refugees. When the rights of refugees are threatened, human rights are threatened. It is the moral and legal obligation of the international community to protect these vulnerable populations and their rights.