As the world recently marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention this year, there have been increasing attempts lately by some governments to disregard or circumvent the principles of the Convention.
The UN adopted the convention establishing the rights of people forced to flee their home countries following the creation of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the previous year shortly after the Second World War. However, there has been rising need for the international community to uphold the key principles of refugee protection as laid out in the Convention, including the right of someone fleeing persecution not to be sent back into the path of harm or danger, especially now that the world refugee crisis caused by conflict, poverty, war, violence, mis-governance and climate change has continued to drive more people out of their homes.
This is as some governments attempt disregarding or circumventing the Convention’s principles, through expulsions and pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers at land and sea borders, to the proposals to forcibly transfer them to third states for processing without proper protection safeguards. According to Article 1 of the Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
The Convention not only ensures that refugees get another chance at living through the recognition of their human rights, but also stresses the importance of international cooperation in tackling the problem. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the treaty is a crucial component of international human rights law and remains as relevant now as it was when it was drafted and agreed.
“The language of the Convention is clear as to the rights of refugees and remains applicable in the context of contemporary and unprecedented challenges and emergencies – such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” Grandi said. Globally, over 82.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and among them are about 26.4 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. According to the UNHCR flagship report for 2020, Turkey continues to host the largest number of refugees with about 4 million people, 92 percent of whom are Syrian refugees.
Mr John Mckissick, UNHCR Deputy Country Representative in Nigeria, said that one out of 95 people on earth today had been forced to flee his or her home to either become internally displaced or crossed the border to become a refugee. According to him, Nigerians have become refugees abroad as a result of insurgents’ actions, non-state armed groups and organised criminals gangs.
Violent conflicts in some regions continue to increase the occurrences of displacements, leaving citizens with no option but to become refugees or settle in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Over the last decade, violent attacks of bandits and the Islamist group Boko Haram as well as communal clashes have continued to escalate in Nigeria’s North- East, North-Central and North-West regions, according to UNHCR. To help, UNHCR says it is providing ‘protection-by-presence, in the field through strategic protection monitoring, vulnerability screening, provision of material assistance and subsequent individual protection referrals to service providers. The agency is also advocating for increased access to social and basic services for displaced persons, respect for the Civilian and Humanitarian character of IDP camps and a better protection environment overall.
Dr Wole Kuniji, an international law expert, said that to combat the refugee crisis in Nigeria, there should be a focus on the “root cause approach.” Kunuji, a lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, University of Lagos, emphasised that the root cause approach addresses the foundational causes of the increase in refugees.
“The refugee crisis currently all over the world is caused by conflict, poverty, war, violence, mis-governance, climate change, among others. “Let us figure out solutions to these causes and implement them before the situation escalates,” he said. Suffice to say that all hands must be on deck to tackle and eliminate these root causes if Nigeria will be free from the menace, Kunuji said According to him, the provision of Article 33 of the Refugee Convention on the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ was the most significant and constitutes the cornerstone of international refugee protection. The provision refers to the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.
It asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom and is now considered a rule of customary international law. Kunuji said that the principle of nonrefoulement was also the anchor of the Nigerian Refugees Act, adding that it must be appropriately followed. Speaking on consequences for the violation of the provisions, Kunuji added that there should be accountability and monitoring mechanisms in the act. This, he said, would mandate the National Refugees Commission to report to a relevant committee on what has been done regarding the provision. “It’s one thing to have provisions in place and it’s another thing to have the political will.
“One way to ensure that there is a process of accountability is for the refugees’ commission to present a report every year on how they’ve helped or enhanced the implementation of rights of refugees. “The UNHCR has a duty to continue to supervise and monitor the implementation of the provision under the Convention and the Nigerian act,” he said.
On the other hand, Mrs Toyin Saraki, Founder, Wellbeing Foundation, said that a research and development approach needed to be employed to tackle the refugee crisis. Saraki, an advocate for refugees, said this could be driven by the philanthropic community in Nigeria. According to Saraki, the philanthropic sector in Nigeria is ready and would happily partner the government in a more meaningful way, to make the lives of refugees better.
“This will allow the philanthropic sector to help the government not just with funds but also at the frontline with key knowledge that can drive impact.” She added that her foundation believed in the need to make optimum health and social care outcomes a reality for the refugee population. “We know that every refuge deserves the right to health guaranteed in any host location, powered by health enhanced certifiable identities. “Every refugee should have a health record and. We need the government to be able to plan to look after the health, education and care of refugees in our national budget.
“We cannot close our eyes to the infringement of the rights of refugees because any of us can be in such a position tomorrow.” “I believe that the community approach is where we need investment to be increased so that we can lift the host community and prepare for the refugee community that keeps increasing.” “It is quite clear that every sector in Nigeria is going to have to come together to prepare for this emergency,” she said.
Onijala writes for the News Agency of Nigeria