This week, world leaders will gather in Geneva to commemorate 60 years of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Yet it is an anniversary that the world’s 15.1 million refugees have little reason to celebrate. Today, states are increasingly shutting their borders and restricting the assistance they give to refugees and people seeking asylum.
Throughout its 40-year history, Médecins Sans Frontières has been at the forefront of delivering emergency medical aid to these vulnerable people. Yet in recent years, we have seen too many national governments circumventing or simply ignoring their responsibilities to refugees, with serious medical and humanitarian consequences for those they have committed to protect.
In South Africa, Médecins Sans Frontières has witnessed Zimbabweans without passports being barred entry at the main border post, denying them the possibility of applying for asylum. As a result, many seek an unofficial route into South Africa, exposing them to myriad dangers, from drowning in the Limpopo river, to attack by crocodiles, to falling victim to violent criminal gangs who roam the borderlands. In the first six months of 2011 alone, our staff treated 42 people who had been raped by gang members while trying to cross the border. We fear there are many more victims who did not seek our assistance.
Europe, which was the focus of the Refugee Convention at its inception in 1951, performs no better in its treatment of asylum seekers. This year, the popular uprisings in North Africa pushed some 57,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to flee across the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta. Perhaps as many as 2,000 people perished at sea. Those who survived the journey found themselves detained in reception centres in appalling conditions. In March this year, 3,000 new arrivals were forced to sleep on the docks on the island of Lampedusa for several days, sharing 16 toilets and surviving on just 1.5 litres of water per day.
Aiming to curb the landings on its coasts, the Italian government quickly moved to sign bilateral agreements with the new Tunisian interim government and the Libyan Transitional Council, despite the ongoing war in Libya. These agreements amounted to pushing back potential asylum seekers from Europe’s shores to North Africa. Italy, along with several other European countries, was party to the Libyan conflict, and thus bore an even greater responsibility to ensure that people fleeing the war were given decent reception conditions and access to an efficient and fair asylum procedure.
Medical and humanitarian activities have a tangible, but ultimately limited, impact on the welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and all those fleeing violence or economic collapse in their home country. Wider questions of assistance, protection and long term solutions urgently need to be addressed. People are increasingly mobile, and their motivations to cross borders are diverse. Governments need to come up with solutions that do not see migration management working at cross-purposes with refugee protection.
In the meantime, the Refugee Convention remains the most important tool for refugee protection and assistance. This week, we can expect ministers and heads of state to speak of their steadfast commitment to the convention. But only when all states actively demonstrate their commitment to refugees through policies that are in line with the spirit of the convention, will world leaders and refugees alike really have something to celebrate.