International Law on Rights of Refugees
The rights of refugees are grounded in underlying principles recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in particular that: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own” (Article 13.2); “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14.1); and “No one shall be arbitrarily… denied the right to change his nationality” (Article 15.2).
The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1951 defines a “Refugee” as any person having a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality… social group or political opinion, [who] is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or… unwilling to… return to it” (Article 1(A)(2)). Such “persecution” is not necessarily by the home country, but in most refugee cases is actually warfare by a foreign country against or within the targeted country of citizenship.
It has become increasingly difficult to discuss refugees as a humanitarian issue, without addressing certain popularized and politicized misconceptions, which tend to overshadow the real issue of basic human rights.
The following sections present those rights which are most applicable to refugees, highlighting the areas of rights which are most relevant to the status of refugees, and those issues which are often misunderstood in receiving countries:
Security of Host Countries
Any security risks are unrelated to the inherent condition of refugees as crisis victims, and are effectively addressed separately and individually. Generalized prejudice or discrimination against refugees for alleged security concerns is thus both false and contrary to human rights. Refugee status “shall not apply to any person” who there are “serious reasons” to believe has committed serious crimes against peace or against humanity; Refugees are obligated to abide by the laws of the host country; A receiving State can only apply temporary restrictive measures which are legitimately “essential to the national security”. (UN Status of Refugees, Articles 1(F), 2, 9)
Rights of Host Country Citizens
Refugees themselves do not change the culture of their foreign countries of residence. It is only the governments of receiving countries which can undermine their own national culture, through unnecessary legislation which exaggerates political “tolerance”. While respecting the cultural rights of refugees, States are also obligated to equally ensure “conservation of culture” as the human rights of their own people, protecting traditional values of the citizens of the host country (UN Economic & Cultural Rights, Article 15).
Prohibition of Discrimination
Government policies which exclude migrants by geopolitical profiling, and thus disregard the real situation of genuine refugees, would violate core principles of human rights under international law. The rights of refugee status must be applied “without any geographic limitation” (UN Protocol on Refugees of 1967, Article 1.3). States are obligated to respect and apply the rights of refugees “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” (UN Status of Refugees, Article 3). As basic human rights, “All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination… and against incitement to such discrimination” (UN Human Rights, Article 7).
Upholding Human Dignity
International law has recognized the most fundamental principles of “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, and “the dignity and worth of the human person”; “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights… and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (UN Human Rights, Preamble: ¶1,5, Article 1). It is especially in the extreme situations affecting refugees that these principles of upholding human dignity must be fully applied, in all aspects of humanitarian relief programs.
Reunification of Families
“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (UN Human Rights, Article 16.3). States must support “efforts by the United Nations and other competent intergovernmental organizations” to actively assist the reunification of families, especially families involving children (UN Rights of the Child, Article 22.2).
“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”, and “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary… detention or exile” (UN Human Rights, Articles 6, 9). States thus have an obligation to provide official documents as a legal person, supporting freedom of movement. Refugees have “the right… to move freely within the territory” of the host State, and “States shall issue identity papers to any refugee in their territory who does not possess a valid travel document” for domestic movement, and also for international travel (UN Status of Refugees, Articles 26-28).
Access to Justice
Refugees “shall have free access to the Courts of law… including legal assistance”; “The expulsion of [any] refugee shall be only… in accordance with due process of law”, with the right “to appeal… before competent authority” (UN Status of Refugees, Articles 16, 32.2).
Refugees have a “right to engage in wage-earning employment”, and all “restrictive measures imposed on… employment of aliens for the protection of the national labour market shall not be applied to a refugee who [is] already exempt from them”; States must give refugees “the same treatment [as] nationals” regarding wages, benefits and working conditions (UN Status of Refugees, Articles 17, 24; UN Human Rights, Article 23).
Access to Education
International law mandates to provide “effective access to education” for refugees and otherwise displaced persons (UN-HRC Right to Education of 2008, Article 7(b)), including by means of subsidies and scholarships (UN Status of Refugees, Article 22). “Technical and professional education shall be made generally available” (UN Human Rights, Article 26.1), including “vocational guidance and training” (UN Economic & Cultural Rights, Article 6.2).
International law mandates the support and preservation of the distinct cultures of refugees. This specifically includes promoting awareness of common shared values, to counteract politicized exaggerations of alleged differences.
“Education… shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups” (UN Human Rights, Article 26.2; UN Economic & Cultural Rights, Article 13.1).
States are obligated to support the universal right to “take part in cultural life”, for “conservation of culture” (UN Economic & Cultural Rights, Article 15), and to protect ethnic minority cultures (UN Civil & Political Rights, Article 27), such that the foreign cultures of refugees must be respected and preserved.
Refugee rights of cultural affairs also include the protected right to freedom of religion, both in belief and practice (UN Status of Refugees, Article 4; UN Human Rights, Article 18; UN Civil & Political Rights, Articles 18.1, 27).
Special IGO Official Authority
As an official inter-governmental organization (IGO) institution, the World Coalition of Refugee Rights (WCRR) has a special role, with specific statutory authority of international law, to provide consular services to refugees in place of governments: “When the exercise of a right by a refugee would normally require the assistance of authorities of a foreign country to whom he cannot have recourse… States in whose territory he is residing shall arrange… such assistance… by their own authorities or by an international authority”. Consular documents issued by an IGO effectively replace the “official instruments” of “national authorities”, and “shall be [recognized] in the absence of proof to the contrary” (UN Status of Refugees, Articles 25.1, 25.3).
An IGO has full official authority to declare and document the legal status of refugees, for those who are residents of a territory operated under sovereignty of the IGO: “The personal status of a refugee shall be governed by the law of the country [State] of his domicile or… residence” (UN Status of Refugees, Article 12.1).
International law mandates a special right for “protecting human rights” at “international levels” through “inter-governmental organizations” (UN Right to Protect Human Rights, Article 5). “Everyone… has the right… and is entitled to realization, through… international cooperation… of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity” (UN Human Rights, Article 22).