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This article is written by Shivani Agarwal and Nimish Mundra, B.Com. LL.B.(Hons.) student from Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. The authors have tried to describe as to who shall be held responsible for condition of refugees, circumstances and this is the high time when people have to step-up and help these people living on earth.

Introduction

The refugee crisis is not only a concern for UNHCR or International Organisation for Migration but is also a very serious matter for the government of various nations. While the world is facing huge changes such as technical changes that include the introduction of robots, self-driving cars, etc., social changes like transformation in the standard of living of the people and many other changes that still have been going. The problem of an efficient refugee protection system has started to establish and extend its arms all over the world. The term ‘refugee’ was first used after the Second World War which drew the attention of various national leaders, human rights activists, and many other experts who have earlier contributed for the same.

In this modern world, where everyone tries to raise their living standards, some people are not even sure of whether they will be able to continue the basic shelter on their heads for the next few days. These are the people they call ‘refugees.’ Different factors, such as, civil war, discrimination based on membership of a particular group or community, etc. are some aspects which have made some people to be known as ‘refugees.’ 

Many organizations and institutions have immensely contributed to find an efficient solution, but most of them have failed because of various factors like differences among the host community and the refugee groups which enter the territories of that community. 

The refugee crisis does not end here by simply providing a solution to one of the many problems. There are large numbers of problems which are associated with the refugee crisis, but the primary problem regarding the rights and duties has also created an environment of tension among the various international organizations that have been working for a long period.

The COVID-19 Crisis

The Covid-19 crisis or the coronavirus pandemic came into the notice when China on 31st December 2019 gave the information to WHO (World Health Organisation) about a bunch of cases of pneumonia because of some unknown reason in the city of Wuhan. The disease eventually spread into the rest parts of China and then to the rest of the world. The WHO then after sometime declared the disease as a global pandemic. The virus spreads through coming in contact with a person who has been already infected with the virus. The speed of spreading the virus is quite fast all over the world and especially old-age people who are above 60 years in age and young children are prone to this virus. 

There were many effects of this global pandemic like many people lost their jobs, critical health conditions of people, etc. and among these effects the worse was the lockdown imposed by various nations. Countries like India, China, France, Italy, and several other nations imposed lockdown as a measure to end this attack of the deadly virus. The lockdown in a way puts a stop on almost every activity of a nation like no travelling allowed, prohibition on people to do work which is a huge danger to the economy of a nation, etc. In simpler terms, people had to adopt entirely different lifestyles during lockdown in their nations. 

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Impact of COVID-19 Crisis on Refugees

As discussed above, due to this global pandemic several nations were forced to impose lockdown in their respective territories and due to which a huge number of people are stuck in different places. This lockdown has impacted the refugees in a very bad manner. Many countries that have imposed lockdown have strictly refused to allow migrants/refugees to enter into the country as a safety measure against the deadly virus. Since the virus spreads through coming in contact with a person, almost all nations have restricted the entry of refugees and thus becoming the worse situation for refugees. 

Refugees and migrants are that part of the society that are the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the society. These members carry this risk because they lack access of water, adequate sanitation systems and medical facilities. 

Refugee camps that have already been set up at different places all over the world are also seen as a dangerous zone for an increase in the number of COVID-19 patients. The reason being that the living conditions in such refugee camps are very poor. There are no proper facilities for refugees, they lack even with the basic amenities like healthy food, clean water, and a safe environment in terms of their surroundings. The health conditions of the refugees are also not even normal. Refugees are always at a risk that at some point in time they will become ‘unhealthy migrants’ because of the lack of adequate food, water, a healthy environment, and proper medical facilities.

Many nations that host the refugees try to provide required facilities to the refugees like building refugee camps, providing medical aid and assistance to them, and many other helps are provided to them but after a certain point of time these all seem to fail. These migrants and refugees do not have any place to settle because of the restrictions imposed by the governments. 

The International Organisation for Migration and UNHCR officially announced on 10th March 2020 that the movement of refugees shall be suspended on a temporary basis.

Need for Amendment in ‘Refugee’ Definition

The recent refugee crisis in the world drew the attention of every individual in the world. People felt terrible upon knowing and realizing the situation of refugees inside and outside the camps. The behavior of the host countries towards these asylum seekers is unacceptable. Refugees are not provided with basic human needs and are ill-treated by the host states. The gradually increasing refugee crisis and the non-availability of the solution to the refugee problem is a big threat to the belief of humans. The mere non-inclusion of certain factors in the definition of refugees given in the Convention by UNHCR ignores the fact that they are not provided with the other basic rights and benefits provided in the Convention to the refugees. They are made deprived of the fundamental human rights and requirements and are forced to live a miserable life. The definition in itself is not complete in its meaning and there is a need to broaden the scope of the meaning following the present requirements.

According to the Convention, a refugee is a person who has ‘a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. However, the definition lacks some situations and circumstances that are applicable in today’s world. The definition covers the events which were applicable during that period and hence, fails to include individuals who are forced to leave their nation due to other reasons and circumstances of the modern world, and thus those people are not considered refugees by the countries. This deficiency of non-inclusion of such events leads to the sufferings of those people and they face great difficulty in availing of the benefits and rights guaranteed by the Convention, and UNHCR by the host country on the grounds of the definition mentioned in the Convention. 

There is an urgent need to amend and modify the year-old definition following today’s world and its problems. Host nations deny them asylum and other benefits like health care, education, food, etc., on the ground that they are not considered refugees under the definition given by UNHCR. These people need to be treated with dignity and should be protected as they are often amongst the most vulnerable and the poorest. Women, the elderly, children, and disabled people are the ones who face the greatest hardship when they leave their homes. They need special protection. This can be achieved by modifying the definition of refugee and including the circumstances like:

  1. Natural disaster- The world has seen tremendous natural disasters like the Indian ocean 2004 tsunami which was one of the biggest tsunamis in the world, the earthquakes in China, Indonesia and Japan were some earthquakes which were responsible for the creation of disturbances in the areas, volcanic eruptions in many areas, these are some types of natural disasters which disturbs the demographic structure as well as the crucial factors like social, environmental, economic of a nation. Many people are forced to leave their place of residence because of these activities. But considering the definition of the refugees in the Convention, these people are not eligible for seeking shelter. This amendment in the definition will provide all these types of people with a minimum basic shelter on their heads so that they can at least live a life for some time until a new alternative is provided.
  2. Climate change- Climate Change is a change in the average weather conditions or a change in weather time between long-term average conditions (i.e., extreme weather events). Whether change largely affects those people who are involved in the activities that are heavily dependent on the weather such as farming. The climate change is not only about the people’s work that is dependent on them but also the lives of the people, especially in rural areas where people heavily rely on the rains, or a good climate so that they can have food-stock to eat and survive. E.g. If for continuous years there has been drought (drought, being a result of climate change) in a particular area and due to that people have nothing to survive, then as a consequence people will have to leave their respective places of origin and move to a new place. These people have no option left but to seek basic shelter. This aspect should also be included in the definition of the refugees. And one provision can also be added that these people should be employed at some workplaces so that as a result they can live their life. 
  3. Poverty- It is a very crucial factor that has been ignored by the definition provided by the Convention. A majority portion, across the whole world, comprises of poor people or people who are earning more than an average and maintaining their life by dragging themselves into the box of poverty. Many people are forced to leave their place of origin simply because they are not able to keep pace with the increasing globalization and economic changes. Hike in the prices of basic goods disallows the people to afford basic goods and commodities and thus, people decide to leave their actual place of residence. But after some time, these people are stuck in the middle of a crisis that they are not left behind with any other option but to live and thus the requirement of basic shelter becomes their priority. These people should also be included under the refugee category but the authorities can have a provision that when such people earn their living, they should be ordered to leave the refugee shelter.

In addition to the factors that are included in the original definition of refugees in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the above-mentioned factors should also be added while reviewing and amending the definition. The displaced people are often rejected by the host countries merely because they do not qualify as refugees under the present definition given by the UNHCR in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Due to the shortcomings in the very definition created by UNHCR itself, it somehow fails to achieve its aim. In today’s world, there are many more factors that force an individual to leave his or her habitual residence and seek asylum in a different country. Also, there lies a gap between the functioning of the domestic communities as well as international communities when it comes to the effective and efficient management of the refugee crisis. Both these different organizations have different policies and guidelines to manage the refugee crisis, which is a major drawback for the solution to the refugee crisis.

Hence, the original definition should be reviewed and amended, and the factors like a natural disaster, poverty, and climate change should be included in the new definition for its effective implication as a solution to the displacement crisis in today’s world.

How the inefficiency in the definition of Refugees has led to the ill-treatment of Refugees in COVID-19

At present, around 70.8 million are displayed across the globe from their homes. The current definition of refugees denies the basic facilities to refugees and some host nations even deny the fact that they should provide basic amenities like food, water, and healthcare facilities to the refugees. Various other factors should be considered such as education, administrative facilities, monetary assistance, and other such things that are crucial for the refugees. The absence of such important aspects from the definition of the refugee not only puts them on risk but now has also led to the pathetic condition of refugees and migrants in the COVID-19 crisis.

In a crisis like this, the situations of migrants and refugees become worse as they have no provisions or places where they could have at least a basic survival. When a natural disaster like floods, famine, earthquake happens, people are forced to leave their homes, but in situations like these where people are not allowed to move from their homes makes it more unsuitable for the people like refugees who have no homes or a shelter where they can live. These refugee camps do not have even proper facilities like clean water, electricity and the most required thing needed during this COVID-19 pandemic that is a good sanitation system remains a dream for the people living in the camps. 

 Many renowned activists, scholars, and speakers raised the issue regarding the problem that the migrants and refugees have to face. Various nations also stepped up in formulating various policies and guidelines that would help in improving the conditions of migrants and refugees. Even the International Organisation for Migration after temporarily suspending the travel of refugees has appealed to the States to make sure that they will provide help for refugees in the emergency cases. Though the nations are in an ambiguous position to decide as to what all steps can be taken so that migrants are rescued and also no harm is done to the people living in the nation. 

Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingyas are a Myanmar ethnic group that mainly lives on the country’s western coast in Rakhine State. Myanmar is a majority-Buddhist state, but primarily the Rohingya people are Muslim, although a small number are Hindu. The ethnic minority is considered by the United Nations as ‘the world’s most persecuted minority’. The story of this persecution or oppression has its origins or roots in the conquest of Burma by Britain, and the reluctance of modern-day Myanmar to accept the presence of a nation that has existed for thousands of years. Beginning in the 1430s, the Muslim settlers came to Arakan State, an autonomous coastal kingdom in Myanmar, and when it was invaded by the Burmese Empire in 1784, a small Muslim population remained in Arakan State. In 1824, Britain conquered Burma and controlled Burma as part of British India until 1948. During those 40-year period, the Muslim population increased tremendously due to the migration of Muslim workers from Bengal. Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948 and did not recognize the Rohingyas, a title adopted by a group of descendants of both Arakan State Muslims and later Burma migrants. Myanmar instead worked to cast out the Rohingya people, excluding them from their constitution. Myanmar passed a citizenship law in 1982, which also denied citizenship to the Rohingya people. Being non-citizens, within Myanmar, the Rohingyas lack fundamental rights and are considered stateless. They are also exempted from Myanmar’s 135 recognized separate ethnic groups. The Rohingya became victims of state-sponsored persecution when Myanmar became a military state in 1962. Throughout the ‘Operation King Dragon’, the Burmese military forces targeted the Rohingyas and were accused of human rights abuses like rape and demolition of villages and homes. This led to Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh and India in large numbers. Another campaign by the country named ‘Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation’, forced the other 200,000 people out of Myanmar. Today also, Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants and is not recognized by law. The Rohingya are unable to access education or social services and their movement outside the Rakhine State is severely restricted. Myanmar has even instituted stringent birth control and marriage laws. 

Living in various refugee camps across India as an ‘illegal migrant’, the Rohingya refugees are left alone to fight the coronavirus pandemic on their own. Most of the social protection packages that the government announced to feed and pay daily wages to the working class have no provisions for non-citizens. While everyone is afraid of being infected with the virus and is taking precautions – keeping social distance, wearing face masks, washing hands with soap – the refugees in Rohingya are unfortunately unable to take any of these preventive measures to protect themselves, as it is impossible for people living in improved shanties who rely on poor sanitation and virtually no access to medical institutions. Buying sanitizers, soaps, and facemasks is a luxury for them. Even the alternative livelihood aid of INR 5,000 for migrant workers by the Delhi Government does not include the Rohingya. As a result, 18,000 Rohingya refugees living in India face a very uncertain future. 

The UNHCR, on the other hand, organized various awareness programs relating to COVID-19 including hygienic and health messaging with different media platforms in various languages. Also, it has asked to provide the refugees with hygiene kits and soaps. But the Rohingya’s most urgent need is access to the food. UNHCR immediately needs to re-evaluate its strategy and concentrate on humanitarian assistance.

Syria Refugee Crisis

The Syrian Civil War began on March 15, 2011, leading families to suffer as a result of a brutal conflict that killed nearly hundreds of thousands of people. The War not only devastated the medical centers, schools, infrastructure, water, and sanitation system but also disrupted the social and business relations with the neighbouring countries. Approximately 6.7 million Syrian people are now refugees and 6.2 million more people are displaced within Syria, making it the biggest refugee crisis of the time. According to the World Bank, Syria was once a fast-growing low-middle-income country. In March 2019, the peaceful protests in the country’s southern cities met with the Syrian security forces’ violent crackdowns that led to international sanctions and other attempts to pressurize the government. In such difficult times, Lebanon became the main destination for the Syrian refugees. For tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan has become home. Countries such as Hungary are gradually closing their borders to prevent Syrian refugees from flowing. Due to the funding shortfall, the World Food Program also cuts its refugee rations. Because of instability, humanitarian access is restricted, and 2.9 million people remain in hard-to-reach areas where support is not routinely given. Increases in violence in north-western Syria resulting in the loss of health care facilities and the displacement of more than 400,000 people from May 2019 to October 2019. Military operations near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria have resulted in civilians being killed and displaced. The bleak conditions of Syrians have had a significant impact on their mental, physical, and social health, affecting the future of children. 

In this time of the pandemic, some organisations, in Lebanese hospitals, have set up health centers for Syrians. But most Syrians are too afraid to go to these centers because they believe that if they no longer have valid residency permits or other important documents, they will run into legal trouble. Therefore, before pursuing a coronavirus test or medication, people consider long and hard, as they know that there are only two alternatives: health care or potential deportation. Basmeh & Zeitooneh and other organizations distributed hygiene kits at and around Bar Elias as well as educating people about the virus through WhatsApp. They have also dedicated a great deal of time to educating refugees on how to deal with conspiracy theories about coronavirus and associated misinformation. Most of Lebanon’s larger camps receive financial support too. People don’t have much money so they find it hard to survive. Meanwhile, they are more afraid of starvation than of coronavirus.

Who is to Blame?

The main question that stands after all the problems, ill-treatment is that who shall be held accountable for such a position of refugees?

The very first answer that comes to mind is China. The root of the pandemic started from this nation and has now affected almost every country in the world. But a point which comes into mind is that shall China be solely responsible for the position of refugees, if yes then what about the conditions of the refugees before the coronavirus outbreak? It seems pretty clear that before the COVID-19 attack the refugees and migrants were not in a good condition. So, if we consider all the situations shall China be responsible for all the mishappenings. 

Another answer to this question can be the authority of host nations. Some countries such as Portugal has taken a commendable initiative by granting citizenship to the foreigners and people such as refugees and migrants living there till 1 July 2020 so that they can have access to the basic medical facilities there. While there are many nations also on the list that have not even given a thought to the conditions of the refugees and migrants. There can be drawn a perception from a nation’s point of view like a risk to the economic, social, cultural, and medical conditions of the citizens living in the country. Shall the host nations at any point during such situations be held responsible for the conditions of the migrants, still remains a question.

The main body that governs issues related to the migrations i.e. the UNHCR has taken many efforts but still, the situations have not improved much. Various appeals made by UNHCR to the nations to tackle the situation have already been made but the question still remains unanswered.

So, the answer to the question about who shall be held responsible remains unanswered and the situations of the refugees and migrants are absolutely uncertain. Various international organizations, local governments of host nations, NGOs working at the local level have to step up and help the people so that the conditions can improve.

Nations that have Stepped up for Refugees in the COVID-19 Crisis

In an effort to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, several nations have made quite strict regulations, have gone for tightening the borders of the nation and have also put travel restrictions within the boundaries as well as outside the boundaries like prohibition on international travel. All these measures taken by the government of various nations have created a very big problem for migrants and refugees. 

Despite of the fact that the movement of migrants and refugees, many renowned activists, scholars and speakers have raised the issue and various nations have laid down some principles or guidelines that might help the refugees. Even the International Organisation for Migration after temporarily suspending the travel of refugees has made an appeal to the States to make sure that they will provide help for refugees in the emergency cases. Though the nations are in an ambiguous position to decide as to what all steps can be taken so that migrants are rescued and also no harm is done to the people living in the nation.

One of the most populated and poorest nation Bangladesh with its 168 million inhabitants and over thousands of refugees has no adequate medical facilities and not even proper sanitation. The Bangladesh government imposed lockdown in the nation on 26th March by placing restrictions such as banning the use of public transport, closing schools and many other measures. Cox’s Bazar is a district in the country that is home to over 8,55,000 Rohingya refugees and is also the second poorest district in the country. The main issue in the refugee camps is not only about providing medical aid but also refugees face problems such as lack of administration, poverty, etc. The Rohingya refugees have survived the massacre of Myanmar’s military and refugees are mainly Muslims. As per WHO the problem of basic hygiene adds to the problem of spreading of coronavirus among the refugees. Even after all these difficulties, WHO and the local organisations of the nation are fighting against the pandemic. UNHCR is focussing on spreading basic awareness such as washing of hands, etc. The main problem of such camps is to avoid the physical contact but the group leaders among the refugees are requested to advice people about the same. Among all these disturbances, the trainers and the medical staff along with the help of the local organisations have contributed their best efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.   

Tens of thousands of people have been living in refugee camps near the Mediterranean. These camps run well even without basic infrastructure. Countries like Europe during the lockdown have not created any provisions that includes the refugees/migrants but in some ways the European government has made efforts in a way to help refugees during the crisis. 

In Greece, the local government along with the help of UNHCR is trying to move around 1,000 asylum-seekers from overcrowded centres to safer accommodation like hotels and apartments. 

Lebanon is a country that hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees and is also facing an economic crisis and has imposed a lockdown which has created a trouble for the refugees. The UNHCR has made an attempt along with the help of NGOs to spread awareness and provide support to the refugees. 

Syria that is a home for millions of refugees has tried to focus on maintaining hygiene and has also emphasised on training of response teams, medical staff, health workers so that the spread of virus can be tackled.    

Conclusion

In 1918, Spanish flu pandemic was caused due to the spread of H1N1 influenza A virus. The Spanish flu lasted for almost a year and caused thousands of deaths. Now, in 2020 this COVID-19 pandemic has spread and has already taken thousands of lives and has no sign of stopping. There have been many changes since the Spanish flu like the standard living of people, cultural changes, economical changes and many other changes. 

In the past few years, the problem of refugees has also started spreading its arms. The refugee crisis is now a problem for almost each and every part of the world whether we talk about Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees and many others. In this coronavirus pandemic, the problem of refugees has not only put them into the poor conditions but is a big question mark on various authorities who take responsibilities for them. The crisis has to be handled as soon as possible before it gets worse not only to the people living in refugee camps but also for the citizens of a nation. 

After seeing all the problems and predicting various serious consequences, there is an urgent need to take care of the refugees and migrants. They must be provided with facilities like healthy food and water, hygienic environment and the most important of all the awareness regarding this COVID-19 crisis.


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