Tag Archives: refugees

New edited collection of citizen-led humanitarian initiatives at European borders just published

A new edited volume bringing together a collection of contributions focusing on citizen-led humanitarian initiatives at European borders has just been published.

This exciting volume titled ‘Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders’ is edited by NCHS Co-Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (Peace Research Institute Oslo) and Elisa Pascucci (University of Helsinki).

“At a time of escalating tensions between states and NGOs engaged in migrant search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, as well as in places where migrants have been kept in limbo, our book explores the emerging trend of citizen‑led forms of helping others at the borders of Europe”, Maria said.

​This book sets out to interrogate the shifting relationship between humanitarianism, the securitization of border and migration regimes, and citizenship. Critically examining the “do it yourself” character of refugee aid practices performed by non-professionals coming together to help in informal and spontaneous manners, the volume considers the extent to which these new humanitarian practices challenge established conceptualisations of membership, belonging, and active citizenship.

This book is key reading for advanced students and researchers of humanitarian aid, European migration and refugees, and citizen-led activism.

This volume is the result of a Research Council of Norway funded research project, ‘Humanitarianism, Borders and the Governance of Mobility: the EU and the ‘Refugee Crisis’’. You can find out more about this edited volume on the publisher’s website here.

When the storm subsides: What happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

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This blog was originally published on BlISS, the blog of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

Image: The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.


This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

The datafication of refugee protection in and beyond the Middle East: A case for digital refugee lawyering

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In February and March 2021, I organised a two-part workshop in which academics, activists, lawyers and NGO-workers were invited to (re)think how digital technologies interact with refugee protection, specifically in the Middle East. Refugee protection – the right to be protected from persecution and the right to make claims to these rights in another country – is increasingly data-driven protection. The increased pluralisation and privatisation of migration management interact with widespread experimental deployment of humanitarian technology. In regard to border and migration governance, governments and UN agencies are developing emerging digital technologies in ways that are ‘dangerous and discriminatory’.

Discussions of digital rights of refugees are key, because getting their privacy wrong can have disastrous consequences. Digital technologies also interact with refugee law, for instance by reconstituting what counts as legal knowledge. And the same technologies – biometric information and automated technologies – are also increasingly used for pre-emptive border controls further narrowing the right to seek refuge and future rights of refugees. Here I consider some important concerns and potential directions for doing differently, derived from the workshop, before I make a case for digital refugee lawyering.  

Concerns about data-driven refugee protection

The workshop’s geographical focus relates to the relatively large presence of refugee populations in Middle Eastern protection contexts and the complex legal interplay pertaining to the roles (and immunity) that International Organisations have taken on regarding refugee rights, in interaction with governments, private entities, implementing partners and donors. Limited regulations combined with a dwindling of funding and the push for efficiency and ‘objectivity’ by external stakeholders has contributed to experimental technology-use, such as the use of iris-scanning technologies, automated vulnerability assessments and cash-assistance via block-chain technology. Humanitarian operations in Jordan and Lebanon are known for innovation and datafication of relief. Geographical areas that receive less humanitarian and academic attention are perhaps also prime locations for technological experimentation.

Recently, there has been more attention for data protection in humanitarian settings. International organizations have developed their own data protection policies. But matters such as limited information provided to data subjects, widespread (meta)data sharing and the permanence of data are persisting as is the presumption that a digital identity would result into a legal identity. Concerns about the use of data beyond its original purposes, cyber (in)security, and algorithm’s tendencies for entrenching structural inequalities also remain.

The increased usage of ‘new’ technologies can cloud that technologies have long been used in refugee management and already often simultaneously imposed control. For instance, physical copies of UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination handbook were never made accessible, for concern that refugees would use them to ‘game’ the system. Current emphasis on data extraction and biometrics closely resemble colonial governance and its racialised exceptionalism. And some refugee communities have longstanding histories of being experimented on.

What is new is the persistence of data, their accessibility over distance and the ability to continuously reassemble data. Technologies can enable urban refugee settings to become camp-like environments by installing modes of surveillance and control. Digital transformations are not confined to refugee governance. But experimentations in humanitarian settings often provide normative and scientific affirmation for technological-driven measures and relate to larger macro-political developments, including anti-migration tendencies and bio-tracing efforts to control Covid-19.

Greater and inclusive techno-legal consciousness

The involvement of private sector and big tech often creates opacity. Across the board, there is need for greater techno-legal consciousness and more knowledge on the back-end of technological infrastructure, on how data can be (mis)used, exploited and misappropriated and how the activities of private partners – including but going beyond Palantir, IrisGuard, Accenture – oscillate between border control and humanitarian operations. Such private partnerships raise questions about normative frameworks used within UN organisations. Committed humanitarian operations might be dedicated to not sharing data, but it is questionable whether involved third parties will uphold the same standards.

This not an argument for more handbooks, for there is often a gap between guidelines produced in Brussels or Geneva and actual data practices by humanitarian workers and this can easily result in more work pressure in the ‘field’. Persisting hierarchical work cultures, fear that admitting mistakes would result in loss (jobs, funding) and the need to tell success stories continue to make learning from the past difficult.

Academics, activists, affected populations, the tech community, practitioners, and policymakers ought to join their efforts. This includes being mindful to the politics of translation, language and accessibility to knowledge. Concerned populations are actively involved in negotiating safety, also concerning their data use, but meaningful consent and access to necessary information. From the outset people on the move, trusted local researchers and communities already working on these topics ought to be involved in discussions on digital rights spaces. In the tech community emphasis is often put on removing biases whereas in refugee law, personal information and characteristics are crucial to determine the credibility of a claim. Such and other differences need to be recognised and addressed.

Implementing partners, headquartered in the EEA, are since 2018 required to follow the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR also applies to personal data collected from people beyond Europe. It does not apply to International Organisations. Workshop participants noted that the GDPR did not result in substantive changes in how data is collected, stored, and processed: other NGOs, not bound by GDPR, would be asked to do the work. Many countries across the globe have their own national frameworks for data protection, but these are not always enforced as GDPR would be. Data protection policies can also be (mis)used for government control.

Donors tend to push for efficiency and a logic of audit but have rather minimal requirement for data protection and technology-oriented programs. And claims about the functionality of technologies in humanitarian relief are hardly ever questioned or evaluated. It is therefore noteworthy that in April 2021 a European parliament member asked why the EU, by funding the WFP and UNHCR’s biometric identity systems for refugee registration in Jordan, was approving standards that within the EU would be deemed ethically unacceptable. This question will hopefully be taken forward. 

A case for digital refugee lawyering

Discussions on rights easily turn into discursive dances around responsibilities and sovereignty that do not relate to realities on the ground. The concept of digital refugee lawyering I put forward therefore perceives digital rights as a negotiated practice. It not only considers how technologies interact with the already precarious access to rights that is reality to many forced and illegalised migrants worldwide. It also explores how to ensure that – considering legal marginalisation in interaction with (lack of) rule of law – people seeking protection and persons working to aid their access to rights can draw safely upon the potentials of digital connectivity. How technologies operate and interact with social relationships relates to matters such as access, power, and privilege. There is potential that procedures taken to curtail Covid-19 can aggravate risks of refugees. And much of UNHCR’s processing procedures are now done remotely. Legal aid is following this development. This only makes discussions on how to act collectively and locally in favor of digital rights of refugees and other (illegalized) migrants more pertinent.

Refugee Legal Aid in Humanitarian Operations

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This post first appeared on Maja Janmyr’s blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Nora Milch Johnsen is a research assistant at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, where she works on the REF-ARAB, BEYOND and ASILE research projects led by Maja Janmyr.

A building with curtains in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Alev Takil via Unsplash

How do humanitarian organisations provide legal aid to refugees in countries that do not have any refugee-specific legislation and where rule of law is largely absent? I spent most of 2020 examining this question closer in my MA thesis focusing on the legal aid program of one international humanitarian organisation in Lebanon. More specifically, I sought to understand how Lebanon’s legal and policy framework on refugees influenced this organisation’s legal aid operations, and which strategies were used to promote and to improve refugee protection in this context. As I will argue in this blog post, the endemic lack of rule of law in Lebanon has discouraged the organisation I studied from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government.

Refugee legal aid in the context of a humanitarian operation

The humanitarian response to influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon has been among the largest humanitarian operations globally. The legal aid program I studied is operated by one of the leading humanitarian NGOs in Lebanon and specifically targets refugees and others affected by the Syrian crisis. The program offers information sessions, legal counselling and representation on different predefined legal topics and is also involved in legal research and advocacy.

Legal aid is provided in a context of increasingly restrictive policies with regards to refugees, and a justice system suffering from endemic lack of rule of law. Despite the fact that refugees make up a quarter of its population, Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the country does not have any formal legislation affording any special status to refugees. Ten years into the Syrian crisis, the situation for refugees in Lebanon is becoming ever more precarious. As a result of tightened regulations, it is estimated that only 22 per cent of refugees in Lebanon have legal residency status. Without a valid residency visa, Syrian refugees are considered illegally present in the country and can face criminal sanctions that might lead to arrest, detention, deportation orders or deportation. To avoid interactions with the authorities, refugees are restricting their movement, limiting their access to basic services such as education and health care.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system – largely based on elite-bargaining and clientelist networks – uneasily interacts with institutionalized responses to refugee protection and principles of rule of law. The presence of refugees is largely governed through elite-bargained decisions, some of which are kept confidential. Political interference with the judiciary is also not uncommon, and judgements challenging the political interests of the Government are not necessarily enforced. As such, the lack of rule of law affects not only the nature of Lebanon’s refugee response, but also the prospect of challenging it through the use of legal mechanisms.

Manoeuvring Lebanon’s refugee policies and justice system

In my thesis, I argue that the lack of rule of law that is endemic to the Lebanese justice system has discouraged the humanitarian legal aid program from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government. Rather than engaging in strategic litigation, I argue, the legal aid program pragmatically explores the possibilities for protection within the existing bounds of Lebanon’s legal and policy framework.

A main finding in my work is that the legal aid program I studied is hesitant to engage in strategies that directly challenge the Government’s restrictive refugee policies either in court or through advocacy. As they often owe their positions to political leaders, judges are generally unwilling to challenge the Government’s policy by accepting pro-refugee argumentation. In the few successful cases, the judgements have not necessarily been enforced. Political interference with the justice system seems thus to discourage the use of strategic litigation.

In addition, by exposing individual refugees to the authorities, the legal aid program often considers that directly challenging political interests comes with a risk of harm for the individual concerned. Informed by a rights-based approach to humanitarian assistance, the legal aid program is committed to the ‘do no harm principle’. In this case, this principle seems to prevent the use of more confrontational strategies altogether. The humanitarian organisation’s dependency on the cooperation of the Lebanese government in order to fulfil its functions also makes it vulnerable to any backlash that could be triggered by directly challenging the Governments’ refugee policies.

In this context then, the focus of the legal aid program is less on strategic litigation and more on administrative procedures. As refugees are not afforded any special status under Lebanese law, the legal aid provided by this organisation is focused on assisting refugees in navigating their options within the fragmented and often inconsistently applied legal and policy framework. The activities related to legal residency thus focus on the administrative procedures available to renew or regularize residency at the General Directorate of General Security (GSO), either based on a UNHCR registration certificate or a ‘pledge of responsibility’ by a Lebanese national. For example, even seemingly straightforward administrative procedures for legal residency and civil registration require legal representation due to burdensome document requirements and the Government’s inconsistent application of these. And as I specifically discuss in my thesis, the legal aid program seeks to improve refugees’ access to civil documentation by engaging with the relatively independent institutions of the religious courts and the elected neighbourhood leaders, the Mukhtars.

Possibilities for protection and potential for harm

Providing legal aid within a legal and policy framework that is inherently hostile to refugees is not a straightforward task. In my thesis, I discuss the ways in which the legal aid program’s politically pragmatic approach, in its quest for practical solutions, in some cases may result in increased protection in some respects, but heightened protection risks in other.

In 2015, on the request of the Lebanese government, UNHCR suspended its registration activities and no longer provides ‘new’ refugees with a UNHCR certificate. This means that currently, the only way to secure legal residency for those unable to obtain this certificate is to find a Lebanese national willing to ‘pledge responsibility’ for their stay.

Residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is not identical to the regions’ infamous kafala system but it mirrors the same exploitative dynamic, as the migrant’s residency is tied to the contractual relationship with the employer sponsoring the residency. In response to reports of migrant workers suffering horrific abuse under the kafala system, numerous rights groups have called for the dismantling of this system altogether, although not specifically with regards to the ‘pledge of responsibility’ available for Syrian refugees.

Because it is currently the only option of legal residency for a large number of Syrian refugees, the legal aid program’s assistance in obtaining residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is indeed a pragmatic solution. This approach nevertheless raises questions about the role of humanitarian organisations in assisting refugees to enter into a contractual relationship which, on the one hand, may protect them from the severe consequences of illegal stay, but, on the other, might expose them to exploitation in the hands of potentially ill-meaning sponsors. Choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the saying goes, is often a fundamentally difficult question – both legally and morally.

My study of the legal aid operations of this one humanitarian organisation in Lebanon sheds light on the dilemmas humanitarian legal aid providers are confronted with when they operate in contexts similar to that of Lebanon, where rule of law is largely absent, and where the legal framework does not provide for the protection of refugees. More than anything else, however, my study raises more difficult questions than it answers: In the pursuit of refugee protection, to what extent can – and should – humanitarian organisations engage in principled and sometimes outrightly confrontational strategies that nonetheless may backlash?  And to what extent should these strategies rather be pragmatic? In Lebanon, the legal aid program I studied balances these dilemmas by manoeuvring the protection possibilities within the existing bounds of the legal and policy framework, while at the same time steering clear of direct confrontations with the Lebanese government.

From Moria to the UN Security Council: Norwegian Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Ambitions

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This post first appeared in Norwegian in Dagbladet. You can read it here.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide and Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi at an event in Jordan. Photo: Indigo Trigg-Hauger / PRIO

The fire at the Moria camp underlines the depth of the crisis in the international system intended to protect people fleeing their home countries. Under the Refugee Convention, people in need of asylum must be given the opportunity to apply for it. The fundamental flaws in this system weighs heavily on the international community and will dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are now seeing a deeply irreconcilable conflict between the domestic policy considerations shaping Norway’s immigration policy and the foreign policy ambitions that the country is pursuing. While Norway prepares itself for a term on the most prestigious and respected international forum, the UN Security Council, where its opportunities to exert influence will be significant, “on the home front” its approach to one of the great challenges of our time is to wait for other countries to take the initiative.

Weakened UN structures

UNWRA, which works with Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, is in serious financial difficulty after its main funder, the United States, withdrew its support for the organization in 2018. The agency is also struggling politically, because the Trump administration has taken the issue of Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table. The Palestinian refugee problem is particularly important because it illustrates, more than any other situation, how long a refugee crisis can continue if it is not solved.

Even so, UNRWA’s responsibilities are minor compared with the burden carried by UNHCR. UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees worldwide, is struggling because of the enormous and ever-growing number of refugees globally, and the shortage of political and economic will to take the measures necessary to resolve the problems. Solutions involve providing housing for people in need, and also finding enduring solutions to the situations that caused them to flee in the first place. In both cases, the central role of the UN in addressing these key questions, both as an international forum and through its specialized organizations, should be obvious. At the start of 2019, there were 79.5 million refugees worldwide. At that time, UNHCR had only half the funding it required for 2020-2021.

The burden-sharing principle is central to ideas about how the international community should assist refugees, but it is not legally binding. There are no mechanisms for establishing a reasonable and just method for making countries share the burden. As a result, the system depends on some countries taking the lead, setting the standard, and then bringing others on board. It is at the same time difficult to argue against the fact that countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, Greece and Turkey are in practice bearing far more than their share of the global challenge of providing protection for refugees.

Norway on the UN Security Council

Although refugees are not directly the concern of the UN Security Council, the UN’s reputation, credibility and effectiveness are weakened if its agencies and member states fail to resolve the various longstanding refugee crises. Accordingly, some connections should be made visible here: from the burned down Moria camp via Oslo and to the UN Security Council in New York. As the Norwegian government celebrated its successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, the institutional difficulties concerning the protection of refugees follows it into the assembly rooms in New York.

Until Moria burned down, the Norwegian position was that Norway should contribute by accepting children from the camp, once another 10 or so countries had already gone ahead and provided assistance. It was clear that this policy was formulated with an eye on the domestic policy agenda, but if Norway is to take up one of the most important positions in international politics, then surely we should not be waiting for other countries to take the lead, so that we can follow in their footsteps. In this regard, Norway’s reputation as a major humanitarian power comes into play. Norway’s foreign-policy capital rests very much on this reputation.

Successful management of this legacy could both strengthen Norway’s position on the Security Council and encourage other countries to take their share of responsibility. This is needed.

Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

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This text first appeared on the ISS blog on Global Development and Social Justice (BLISS), and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdamand a PRIO Global Fellow.

Leave No One Behind. Photo: Caratelllo via Flickr

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.

The controversial lifesavers: NGO search and rescue in the Mediterranean

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This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Post by Katja Franko and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert. Katja is Professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. Her work is primarily concerned with borders, globalization and issues of criminalization of migration. Maria is Research Director and Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). Her work is primarily concerned with humanitarian and security responses to migration and border management. This is the first instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

This artwork in Copenhagen, by renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is made up of actual life jackets used by migrants crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in search of safety or a better life in Europe. Photo: TeaMeister via Flickr

During 2016 and 2017, more than 46,000 migrants were rescued yearly by NGOs and civil society actors close to the Italian coast. The numbers have declined considerably in the past two years. NGOs are, nevertheless, still the largest single actor in search and rescue in the area apart from the Libyan coast guard, after Italy and the EU  delegated increased responsibilities on this matter to Libya during the last year. As pointed out by previous contributions on this blog, these activities have been subjected to various types of state intervention such as seizure of rescue vessels, arrests of crew members, and initiation of legal procedures against them. 

At the same time, NGO search and rescue (SAR) activities have been surrounded by intense rhetorical battles. Migration policy is a highly politicised field and positions on humanitarian rescue vary considerably, often depending on the speakers’ professions, institutional affiliations and political convictions. Attention to language is important here. The use of certain metaphors, discursive couplings and rhetorical tropes framing migrants and rescuers influences attitudes and political actions by focusing on certain aspects of the activities while suppressing others. At the most extreme, NGOs have been accused of ‘playing into the hands of human traffickers’ (Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex, Die Welt, 27.2. 2017). SAR has been rhetorically coupled with human smuggling and even trafficking. As Frontex wrote in one of its reports: 

“Apparently, all parties involved in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean unintentionally help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success.” (Frontex, 2017: 32).

More recently, the French interior minister Christophe Castaner suggested (5.4. 2019) that SAR off the North African coasts represent “a real collusion between smugglers and some NGOs“. What these linguistic tropes do is to present the rescuers as deliberately creating routes for irregular migration into Europe, and thereby effectively deflecting attention away from the duty of rescue and the lifesaving efforts they are fulfilling. Within this debate, there are similar discourses that eventually create doubts around the migrants’ right to assistance, by questioning their right to international protection. This narrative is underpinned by their awareness of the risks that they “put themselves into”, thereby obscuring the fact that the right to rescue is unconditional of any legal status (yet to be defined) and the reasons that have led anyone into that situation in the first place. 

While the statements referred to here may be the sharpest and most dramatic examples of condemnation of NGO rescue operations by EU member states and agencies, a more pervasive and, arguably, more influential perception has been established in the past decade or so: that SAR constitutes a pull factor for irregular migration. While the debate on the topic has raged, with polarized views and disagreements around this assumption, this idea of SAR as a pull factor has become more widespread. The idea is probably attractive because it provides a seemingly simple explanation to a situation that is otherwise difficult to comprehend: why people are risking their lives, and what should be done about it. 

Because the pull-factor argument has become pervasive in current discussions about  responses to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to address the question by closely examining the findings of existing scientific studies on the subject, and to critically discuss what this assumption does to the policy responses in the area. This is what we aim to do in this week’s thematic issue. The contributions address the issue of humanitarian Search and Rescue from several standpoints: from a policy and legal perspective, and from the point of view of humanitarian actors who are tackling these questions on a daily basis. The contributions were first presented at a public debate that took place at the House of Literature in Oslo in November 2019, jointly organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and the University of Oslo’s NORDHOST project. Conscious of the fact that migration policies are often more informed by political convenience than scientific knowledge or even reference to international legal obligations, the event aimed to bring in dialogue researchers, politicians, NGO representatives and the general public in order to discuss the nature and impact of humanitarian SAR operations. 

In the second post, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert examines some of the existing studies about SAR as the pull factor, all refuting any direct connection and pointing to a more complex picture affecting the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean. Her contribution then asks what the focus on SAR as a pull factor says about the state of European policies in the area.

Erik Røsæg, professor of maritime law at the University of Oslo, examines SAR from the perspective of the international law of the sea. What do existing conventions actually say about the duty to rescue, whose responsibility is it, and what it means to fulfil this responsibility? While political discourse may give an impression that there is much room for choice, Røsæg’s contribution points to the clarity and firmness of state legal obligations when it comes to SAR. 

The final two posts are contributions from the field by two NGO representatives, Kyrre Lind from Doctors without Borders Norway, and Pål Nesse from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Lind shares an account from the perspective of those participating actively in search and rescue, and who are at the centre of the “pull factor” polemic. Nesse follows up arguing that the “pull factor question” is all together the wrong question to start with: not only is the picture much more complex, but it also obscures what should be very clear, namely, the duty to rescue lives at sea.

While the contributions are critical of the discourses through which search and rescue activities have been framed in recent years, they also paint a more pressing overall picture. They show that European policies in this area have turned away from some central principles that have traditionally been seen as salient guides for political action: scientific evidence, legal rules and humanitarian principles. The contributions in this issue, and the preceding debate, show that this development is also taking place in Norway, a country that is often taking great pride in observing the above-mentioned principles. This is yet another reminder that when it comes to migration policy, there are few countries that have been able to stand firm on principles, when faced with the perceived urgency of the issue. 

The COVID-19 Resettlement Freeze: Towards a Permanent Suspension?

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This text was originally posted on the UNSW Kaldor Centre blog and is-reposted here. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve.

Migrants boarding the bus headed towards the processing center in Amman, Jordan 2015. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed via Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the suspension of international resettlement for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), resettlement-related travel will resume as soon as prudence and logistics permit. Meanwhile, individuals and families that were set to go are in limbo for the foreseeable future. However, this is not the first time that resettlement has been suspended on account of a public health emergency – and it may not be the last.

Before the pandemic, it was already clear that resettlement would struggle to make the comeback predicted at the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. There had been a sharp decline in resettlement to the US, which historically took the largest number of resettled refugees, and resettlement had been suspended altogether in some traditional receiving countries, such as Denmark in 2017. There was also the manifest unwillingness of the European Union (EU) and its member states to redistribute refugees hosted by Greece and Italy during the influx from Syria in 2015–16, and the EU’s push for emergency resettlement in African states rather than the EU.

Yet, the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement as a durable solution – rather than an obligation under international law – has long caused strong and seemingly sudden fluctuation in resettlement numbers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is far too early to assert the ‘death of resettlement’. Rather, it’s the time to revisit key debates to provide pointers on resettlement post-COVID-19.

A volatile instrument of refugee governance: discretion and historical shocks

Resettlement does not entail a firm set of obligations under international law. Resettlement is one of three non-hierarchical durable solutions for refugees. According to the definition used by UNHCR, resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have initially sought protection to a third state that has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status. The actual mechanisms of the resettlement process are largely unregulated by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The discretionary nature of resettlement means that there is a lack of harmonisation as to who will be resettled across resettling countries. Groups prioritised by one country – for example women at risk or LGBTI refugees – may not be on the priority list of others. Moreover, there is a gap between UNHCR statistics on refugees put forward for resettlement and those who actually have been physically moved by the various receiving countries. Therefore, one should execise caution when reading resettlement statistics.

Furthermore, given the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement, numbers have varied significantly over time in response to external shocks. For example, the 1980s saw a decline in resettlement. This followed a nearly 40 year-period in which resettlement was the preferred durable solution of UNHCR and states for many refugee populations (though not for African refugees). Western states became increasingly reluctant to resettle people whom they considered to be ‘would-be economic migrants’. In addition, the end of the Cold War saw a shift towards temporary protection and repatriation instead of resettlement. By the mid-1990s, however, UNHCR sought to reframe resettlement as a humanitarian act, and argued in a seminal report that it was a strategic instrument of international protection by states. The clearer doctrinal separation between refugees and migrants, and the provision of ‘soft law’ guidance to states, contributed to a resurgence of refugee resettlement from the mid-1990s.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a significant decline in resettlement, particularly in the US. Prior to 9/11, processing time averaged one year; after 9/11, it stretched to a two- to three-year process. Immediately after 9/11, the number of refugees resettled in the US plummeted—from more than 73,000 in 2000 to less than 30,000 in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration developed more stringent security screening protocols. These protocols remained in place through the Obama administration, and were expanded under the Trump administration’s ‘extreme vetting’ protocols.

Health concerns, such as COVID-19, have also been a reason why resettlement has been delayed or suspended. With regards to infectious diseases, stigma and the fear of contagion has affected the willingness of states to resettle refugees. For example, UNHCR has decades of experience in trying to overcome medical bans to resettle HIV-positive refugees. In 2014, and noting the lack of a public health rationale, UNHCR reported that some resettlement selection missions to Ebola-affected regions in West Africa had been cancelled. Australia went as far as to suspend humanitarian visas for refugees from Ebola-affected countries.

Preserving and expanding the resettlement space

Scholarship is divided on the best ways to preserve, and perhaps expand, resettlement. Focusing on Europe, Thielemann argues that a clear, binding legal framework is necessary to strengthen resettlement. In contrast, Suhrke considers that the adoption of binding resettlement targets would only be accepted by states if the targets did not required them to do more than they are already doing. Rather than legal developments, she argues, it is political leadership (and a conducive domestic and international environment) that matter. Actual developments reflect both academic perspectives, and innovations may also help preserve the resettlement space.

In recent years, litigation has been used to preserve resettlement. The EU has adopted a binding legal framework on intra-EU refugee resettlement and the European Commission has taken non-compliant states to court.  In the US, resettlement agencies have sued the Trump administration for allowing US states to refuse to resettle refugees. In January 2020, the federal court, granting a first injunction to the plaintiffs, ‘prohibited the Trump administration from allowing states and localities to veto refugee resettlement’.

Regarding political leadership, at the international level, UNHCR has focused recently on broad alliances, including with the private sector, and supported ‘complementary pathways’ of admission to expand resettlement. Some have criticised this approach for being too top-down because the actual needs of refugees and their agency are overlooked. Canada’s response to the resettlement needs of Syrians branded it the new global leader in resettlement – although resettlement advocates note that there has been no announcement of a considerable, longer-term expansion of resettlement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while resettlement is suspended, states, UNHCR, and civil society will need to provide strong statements supporting the swift resumption of resettlement activities and an expansion of resettlement intakes.

Though innovation is not a panacea and must be given critical scrutiny, technological innovation has the potential to expand the resettlement space as well. For instance, a project run out of Stanford University, experimenting with the use of algorithms for assigning placements for refugees, suggested that such placement – allegedly at no cost to the host economy – would increase refugees’ chances of finding employment by roughly 40 to 70 per cent, thus helping resource-constrained governments and resettlement agencies find the best places for refugees to relocate.

It remains to be seen how long resettlement will be suspended due to concerns about COVID-19. As we have seen from history, when politics or pandemics have slowed down resettlement, it has had the ability to bounce back. Eyes will be on how international organisations, states, and civil society act in the coming months to shape resettlement in the future.

SuperCamp: Genealogies of Humanitarian Containment in the Middle East

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This blog post is based on a panel presentation at the seminar: “Assisting and protecting refugees in Europe and the Middle East – politics, law, and humanitarian practices” 19 September 2019 at PRIO in Oslo, Norway.

In 2015, more than one million migrants reached Europe in the largest movement of people since WWII. In order to seize control of “irregular migration,” the EU and Schengen countries instituted a new policy of regional containment from late March 2016 that targeted migrants arriving via major land and sea routes. Moreover, European transit countries, with Hungary in the lead, strengthened border control and built new fences to deter migrants. In the Mediterranean, humanitarian search and rescue missions intensified, as did EU border patrols and surveillance. The efforts to constrain, deflect and deter migrants are likely to continue and even intensify. Effectively, a policy of humanitarian containment by the EU and Schengen member states establishes the Middle East as a “catch basin” for refugees and migrants alike. To study the origins of this dynamic, the SuperCamp project combines refugee-, border- and archival studies for an inter-regional analysis of immobility and containment.

The Middle East as a zone of containment

The Middle East region is not only a spatial container and “catch basin” but also takes on features of what can be termed a SuperCamp,where refugees and migrants are not so much hosted as held hostage. The Middle East region now forms a regional zone of containment, a SuperCamp under humanitarian government. As pointed out by Are John Knudsen (Chr. Michelsen Institute) in his introduction to the panel, the refugees’ and migrants’ mobility are circumscribed locally (host states) and regionally through bilateral- (EU-Turkey deal) and multilateral treaties (Schengen). Refugees and migrants typically lack the rights that accrue to ordinary citizens, hence depend on host states and the UN-system (UNHCR, UNRWA) for their upkeep. There are now more than 500 camps in operation, they range from traditional refugee camps in the Middle East, to various types of internment camps and “hot spots” in Europe – examples include the large refugee camps Zaatari and Azraq in Jordan, transit camps in France like the Calais “jungle” (now closed), the infamous Moria internment camp in Lesvos, Greece’s largest camp, and Cara de Mineo in Sicily, until recently Italy’s major migrant “hot spot” center. Together, the treaties and camps underpin a regime of forced immobility designed to keep refugees and migrants inside the Middle East region and outside of continental Europe.

Tracing the historical roots of encampment

In order to trace international humanitarian responses to the refugees in the Middle East, we need to go back to the mid-19th century Middle East. The history of refugee resettlement in the late Ottoman and mandate-period Middle East, shows the longer lines of this development, as discussed by Benjamin Thomas White (University of Glasgow). He traced the shift towards practices of containment that occurred as a dynastic empire gave way to nation-states, with a particular focus on the Baquba refugee camp in post-Ottoman Iraq. One core research focus is how regional displacement in the late Ottoman and early-Mandate period lay the foundations of state policies and early “encampment”.

The policy of encampment gained pace during the period 1950-2000, following the camp policy that was instituted to respond to the Palestinian refugee crisis, but later extended to other crises and regions as well. For 70 years, in a highly politicized context, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has delivered temporary humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees, Kjersti Berg (Chr. Michelsen Institute) highlighted some dilemmas arising from UNRWAs long-term tenure. Established in 1949, UNRWAs mandate has been limited to the “humanitarian realms” and the agency is not empowered to provide any “durable solutions” to the refugees’ plight. In sheer numbers, the Palestinian refugee population is one of the largest, and their displacement one of the most protracted and characterized by a lack of access to rights. The refugees’ “Right of Return” to Palestine is enshrined in international law, but Israel rejects their return, as well as the quest for statehood. Due to political impasse, UNRWA therefore continues to provide quasi-state services and assistance to the refugees.

Governing migration today

The years from 2000 onwards have seen the policies of containment, which are so central to refugee camps, taken even further. The containment of migrants not only involves protracted “strandedness” and immobility, but is also about governing migration through disruption and keeping migrants constantly on the move, as Synnøve Bendixsen (University of Bergen) argued in her presentation. Based on ethnographic fieldwork along the so-called Balkan route, she explored the effects of containment by the EU and Schengen member states. The Balkan region has been reconfigured as a transit and waiting zone by the ongoing bio-political policies of forced immobility. In this process, the migrant journeys, their speed, strategies and imaginaries are constituted through a humanitarian architecture that keep refugees stranded both inside and outside the EU.

In a time where migration and refugee policies are entering both public and political forums of debate in full force, an analytical project that combines specialized research fields that seldom communicate – refugee, migration and humanitarian border studies and history – provides important insight for enhanced understanding of both regional and global forces of humanitarian containment.

This project is funded by the FRIPRO-programme of the Research Council of Norway, and it runs from 2019-2022.


The Cartagena Declaration at 35 and Refugee Protection in Latin America

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This text first appeared on E-International Relations and is re-posted here. More E-IR articles can be accessed by clicking this link. Prof Liliana Lyra Jubilut is a Professor of the Post-graduate Program in Law at Universidade Católica de Santos, Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza is a Lecturer i Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London, and Dr Gabriela Mezzanotti is an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the University of South-Eastern Norway. The authors are currently working on the edited book ‘Latin America and Refugee Protection: regimes, logics, and challenge’.

Photo: Peg Hunter via Flickr

On November 22nd 2019 the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (Cartagena Declaration) turns 35. It is a paramount document on refugees’ protection in Latin America, setting both normative standards and the regional tone for policies and actions in this area, thus, being a cornerstone of Refugee Law in the region. This is especially relevant as the Latin America is facing contrasting scenarios in terms of migration governance: an increasing politicization of migration and refugees’ management and anti-immigrant sentiments, as well as disrespect for human rights and refugee law, coexisting with a regional tradition of granting asylum and the ascertaining of a human-rights based (Grandi, 2017) and avant-gard protection for refugees (Freier and Acosta 2015; Jubilut and Lopes 2018).

Assessing the role of the Cartagena Declaration and its relevance on its 35th anniversary is also important in light of current regional forced displacements, as Latin America is witnessing massive flows of refugees and other migrants, as (i) in the case of Venezuela with 4,5 million displaced persons (mainly since 2016) and a prediction of reaching 6,5 million next year, also (ii) soaring numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers from the North of Central America (estimated at over 350,000 in the end of 2018), (iii) new displacements from Nicaragua due to a crisis that began in April 2018, (iv) the endurance of Haitian migration, and (v) the continued displacement of Colombians even after the peace agreements, to add to an estimated of 7 million displaced persons during the conflict. This increasing mobility in the region might be joined by new displacements resulting from the social and political strives in Chile and Bolivia.

In this context, it is relevant to present the Cartagena Declaration to a larger audience, celebrate its 35th anniversary, and assess whether the framework of protection created by it since 1984 can be a relevant tool in dealing with these competing scenarios in refugee protection in Latin America, as a way to appraise its lasting and current impacts.

The Cartagena Declaration and Its Regime

Panorama

The Cartagena Declaration was created in an academic colloquium (Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico, and Panama) held in Colombia in 1984, in light of the refugee situation in Central America[1], and adopted a regional approach to refugee protection.

The Cartagena Declaration set the basis for the evolution of a specific Latin-American framework of refugees’ protection, developing from the region’s long-established tradition of asylum (Fischel De Andrade, 2014, Acnur n/d). It dialogues, however, with larger frameworks (Jubilut and Lopes, 2018), such as the international refugee regime (a relation expressed both in the Document’s explicit mentions to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol[2] and in its support by the United Nations High Commissioner from the beginning[3], Human Rights and other regional schemes such as the Organization of American States (OAS) – which embraced the Declaration[4] and encompasses the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean States alongside Latin America countries. Due to its normative developments, has been listed together with the 1969 OUA Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa as examples of successful developments in regional refugee protection.

The Cartagena Declaration, initially adopted by 10 States as a soft law instrument, is divided into 3 content parts: the first one with a preamble aspect contextualizing the document and expressing its fundaments and principles; the second one linking the document to the Contadora Process for Peace and reproducing its normative result[5], and the third part with the substantive contributions of the Document, presented as conclusions.

There are 17 conclusions in the Cartagena Declaration encompassing suggestions specifically tailored to the Central America refugee situation, provisions on the betterment of refugee protection in the States of the region, and contributions to refugee protection at large in Latin America. In the latter, two aspects should be highlighted.

The first is the already mentioned dialogue between refugee protection and human rights. This is a prevalent topic in the Cartagena Declaration, and should be praised both as a pioneering effort in States’ practice in this area (in the early 1980s) and as a guideline aiming at guaranteeing integral protection for refugees, i.e. not only the rights they are entitled to due to their migratory status but also all their human rights (Jubilut, Apolinário, 2008). Furthermore, this connection opens up the possibility of refugee protection also benefiting from other institutional arrangements linked to human rights (such as the InterAmerican System of Human Rights from the OAS), and, therefore, being enlarged.

The second aspect regarding refugee protection at large in Latin America is the creation of a regional definition of refugees that goes beyond the international criteria set up by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This stems from the 3rd Conclusion of the Cartagena Declaration, that reads:

the definition or concept of a refugee to be recommended for use in the region is one which, in addition to containing the elements of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order. (highlights added)

These criteria look into the objective situation of the country of origin of the refugee as the main cause for refugee status, not requiring the existence of individual persecution (Jubilut and Carneiro, 2011; 67, Reed-Hurtado, 2013) and closely links refugee status to International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (Ibid; Burson and Cantor 2016).

Among the several criteria spelled out in the 3rd Conclusion, the one mentioning massive violation of human rights (or gross and generalized violation of human rights as more commonly used in the region[6]) is not only the more encompassing one[7], but also is perceived as the main conceptual contribution of the Cartagena Declaration. This is so due to the fact that albeit not applied in its entire possible width  it allows for recognizing refugee status “when internationally recognized rights are subject to widespread or large scale violations—situations of ‘gross and systematic denial of civil, political, economic and social, and cultural rights” (Reed-Hurtado, 2013: 14), encompassing, for instance, situations such as dictatorships, internal strives, humanitarian crisis, and war. In this sense, and from a normative standpoint, it is a relevant increase in protection in the region.

Legacy and Impacts

The creation of a regional concept of refugee, and the inclusion of  the possibility of refugee status due to gross and generalized violation of human rights in it, are the first two impacts of the Cartagena Declaration that need to be emphasized. They not only amplify protection in the region but also establish a Latin-American grammar in refugee protection, combining the international criteria for refugee status determination with a tailored regional definition. The latter also reinforces the dialogue between Refugee Law and Human Rights, present from the start in the regional regime as it is incorporated in the region’s refugee definition from 1984. The Cartagena Declaration concept of refugee and its peculiarities can be said to be a first pillar in the creation of a regional refugee regime in Latin America.

If one accepts regimes as the existence of rules, principles, and decision-making procedures (Krasner,1982) this perception is corroborated by the fact that the Cartagena Declaration set up a revision process, with meetings every 10 years to evaluate the region’s needs and developments in refugee protection and to adopt follow-up documents and plans of actions.

The first of these meetings was held in 1994, and resulted in the San Jose Declaration, which has as its main specific contribution the fact that, regionalizing the international momentum of the topic[8] and perceiving the region’s needs in the issue, strongly dealt with the protection of Internally Displaced Persons as a relevant Latin-America theme in refugee protection[9]. The second follow-up meeting took place in 2004 and resulted in the adoption of the Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action,[10] which embraced a responsibility-sharing optic instead of the more traditional burden-sharing approach to refugee protection, and was divided in two main components: one focusing on protection and the other on durable solutions (Jubilut and Carneiro 2011). In the latter, three regional initiatives were adopted within the solidarity[11] logic that guides all the document: 1) borders of solidarity, focusing on protection at frontiers as well as on actions for local host populations on border towns; 2) cities of solidarities, with a focus on integration in urban settings, the main scenario in Latin America; and 3) resettlement in solidarity, creating new resettlement schemes in the region, for both intra and extra regional refugees and having as its main selection criterion the need for protection (Vera Espinoza 2018a, 2018b; Jubilut and Zamur 2018).  The most recent of the meetings happened in 2014 and led to the adoption of the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action, which reinforces the initiatives previously adopted and the existence of a regional regime of refugee protection in Latin America (Jubilut and Madureira 2014), and continues the Cartagena Declaration legacy.

If the regional refuge definition is the first pillar of the Cartagena Declaration regime of refugee protection, the revisional process and its products are the second. They are also good thermometers of regional adherence to the regime, pointing out a continuous increase in commitments, as one can see that while the Cartagena Declaration was initially adopted by 10 countries and is currently incorporated nationally by 16, the San Jose Declaration was signed by 17 States, the Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action by 20, and the Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action by 31 countries. Furthermore, they showcase an evolution from only declarations to declarations and plans of actions which represents concerns about both normative propositions and actual implementation and policies.

The third pillar of the regional refugee regime can be said to be the aforementioned connection with human rights, which has led the region to be praised internationally (Grandi, 2017). This is relevant as it also sheds light into a fourth pillar and key aspect of refugee protection in Latin America, as it is the coexistence of different systems and regimes (Jubilut and Lopes, 2018: 132). In relation to the former, one can point out (i) the dual nature of asylum in the region, implemented by political asylum and refugee status, (ii) the dialogues among Refugee Law and International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, and (iii) the coexistence of the regional definition with the international refugee definition (Ibid).

Regarding the coexistence of regimes of refugee protection in Latin America[12], it is relevant to first recall the previously mentioned relationship between the regime created by the Cartagena Declaration with the InterAmerican Human Rights System, which, through the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, can be said to also have created a regional protection regime for refugees and other migrants within its human rights framework.

A second regime coexistence would take place in relation to the Cartagena Declaration regime and national regimes of refugee protection. Given that, as mentioned, 16 countries have already incorporated the Cartagena Declaration into their national laws, it could be argued that this regime co-existence has not only expanded protection but also transformed, at least in the national level, a commitment transforming a soft law instrument into hard law at least nationally.

If, on the one hand, one can thus see the Cartagena Declaration Regime as having four main pillars – regional definition, revision processes, connection to human rights and the dialogue with other regimes and systems -, on the other, it is also possible to identify three elements that complement this regime, in what is called the “spirit of Cartagena”, understood in relation to: 1) a human rights approach to refugee protection, which is simultaneously a pillar of the Cartagena Declaration regime and a characteristic of the “spirit of Cartagena”, 2) an expanded humanitarian space and 3) a constant effort to assess the region’s needs and challenges in refugee protection.

The “spirit of Cartagena” can be said to be in place in the debates and adoption of the Cartagena Declaration but also in the development of the regime derived from it, and even influencing other actions regarding the protection of refugees and other migrants (such as humanitarian visas and other alternative pathways for legal stays for instance (Jubilut 2017)) in Latin America. That is to say, the ‘spirit of Cartagena’ and the Cartagena Declaration regime’s pillars can be considered to be lasting impacts and legacies of the Cartagena Declaration in the protection of refugees in Latin America.

Current Challenges in Refugee Protection in Latin America

However, and even though the regional setting showcases the existence of comprehensive regimes of refugee protection, and a regional optic of ascertaining human rights and the implementation of asylum; recent events have – as noted above – created a scenario of contrasting and competing logics, i.e. one the one hand, the Cartagena Declaration and its regime, alongside other structures of protection in the region, and, on the other, the adoption of policies, rhetorics and actions against refugees and other migrants’ protection.

This can start to be explained by the fact that Latin America remains a region that, at the same time, produces and receives refugees (UNHCR, 2019: 68 and 74), and recently has been experiencing a combination of these realities: with a record number of intra-regional refuges, originating mainly from Venezuela and the North of Central America, but also encompassing forced migration from other places (Jubilut and Jarochinski 2018; Jubilut 2016).

The increase in numbers has occurred alongside the rise of populist governments, as well as right-wing local and/or national governments, which either did not impress great significance on refugee protection or adopted a “hard line” in migration governance. The combination of these factors has led to human rights violations, restrictive migratory laws, and violations of Refugee Law (both in its international and regional standards).

Examples of that have been the preferred avenue by States to not apply the regional definition to intra-regional refugees but rather create complementary protection pathways (Jubilut and Fernandes 2018), which could be seen as an implementation of the “spirit of Cartagena” if they were being applied only to migrants other than refugees, and not as a way to diminish protection. Moreover, and in a opposite policy, some countries have not created any strategy to deal with the increased flows, leaving all migrants to apply for refugee status, thus overburdening existing systems and regimes. Furthermore, specific situations have amplified the vulnerability of some migrants, such as in the cases of statelessness persons’ protection (from Haiti in the Dominican Republic), undocumented children migration (from the North of Central America and Venezuela) and migration of indigenous persons (from Venezuela).

One can see then that competing and contrasting logics are in play in Latin America, at the time of the 35th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration. It is relevant to point out this scenario so that setbacks are not allowed, and the regime created by the document is not jeopardized. Moreover, recalling the Cartagena Declaration and the regime it has created, as well as how it is a framework of protection that dialogues with others in the region, helps to highlight that there is a grammar of protection in Latin America, with strong normative structures, and if refugees and other migrants are not being adequately protected it is more a result of lack of political will and of political choices than a lack of regimes and traditions of humanitarian action, granting of asylum and refugee protection.

Conclusion

As argued here, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and its legacy for the protection of refugees in Latin America, which spams from the document itself to the creation of a regional regime as well as impregnates the region with the “spirit of Cartagena”, is more relevant than ever. The lasting impacts of the Document as well as the longevity of a regional commitment to refugee protection should be celebrated, especially in the occasion of its 35th anniversary. However, practical challenges remain, particularly in light of new forced displacement flows in the region that bring to light contrasting scenarios for refugee protection in Latin America.

On the one hand, the most positive characteristics of the region that create Latin America’s grammar of refugee protection, are: the long-lasting tradition of asylum; a human rights approach (that can lead to integral protection); the spirit of Cartagena; and the coexistence of the Cartagena Declaration Regime, the InterAmerican Human Rights system for the protection of refugees and other (forced) migrants, and national regimes that have adopted expanded refugee status definition as well as humanitarian policies and complementary protection alternatives. On the other, however, anti-migrants rhetorics from around the world also reverberate in Latin America, alongside discriminatory and xenophobic behavior, as well as, the adoption of practices and rules that go against international commitments, so as to escape the reach of International Refugee Law (as with non-refoulement and adequate Refugee Status Determination procedures) or International Human Rights standards (in the protection of children and against torture and detention, for instance).

It seems, thus, that even though the instruments (normative and otherwise) are in place, the main challenges arise from the lack of political will to implement them. That is why highlighting the relevance of the Cartagena Declaration by celebrating its 35th anniversary, can be an important reminder to the region of its commitments to refugee protection, asylum and human rights.

Notes

[1] See Cartagena Declaration 2ndh preambular paragraph.

[2] See, for instance, Cartagena Declaration 4th and 8th preambular paragraphs, as well as its second, third and eighth conclusions.

[3] UNHCR was represented in the Colloquium that adopted the Declaration and is mentioned throughout the document.

[4] By Resolution AG/RES. 774 (XV-O/8S) of 1985, which highlights the importance of the Declaration and recommends that all Member States apply it to refugees in their territory (paragraph 3) . Available at: <http://scm.oas.org/pdfs/agres/ag03799S01.PDF>.

[5] See Cartagena Declaration 8th preambular paragraph.

[6] For the different wordings adopted by States in incorporating this aspect of the Cartagena Declaration, see: Piovesan and Jubilut (2011)

[7] For even broader possibilities of application of this criterion see Weerasinghe (2018).

[8] For instance, with the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

[9] The topic was also present in the Cartagena Declaration (conclusion 9).

[10] All of the documents from the Cartagena Declaration regime, as well as the practices of the InterAmerican Human Rights system, national practices in the region, regional schemes for the protection of migrants that can also benefit refugees, as well as the main current displacement flows from the region, are the objects of study of upcoming volume edited by Jubilut, Vera Espinoza and Mezzanotti (forthcoming).

[11] For more on solidarity as a guiding principle of the Cartagena Declaration regime and a legacy from it (as well as the flexibility of sovereignty impose by the Document) see: Jubilut, Apolinário and Jarochinski (2014).

[12] For more on this see the upcoming volume edited by Jubilut, Vera Espinoza and Mezzanotti (forthcoming).

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