THE chief instrument that empowers the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to act is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
The birth of the Convention took place during the times of the League of Nations in 1921, following the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), when mass movements of war refugees were seen on an unprecedented scale. That, of course, was surpassed by the number people displaced during World War II (1941-1945).
Currently, there are 145 signatories to the Convention, which is still quite unfavourable when compared to 188 (or more) signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention (about treatment of civilians during wartime), and the 192 signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Convention asserts that refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and in many cases the same treatment as nationals. The basic definition of a refugee is spelled out, including their rights and obligations.
An important provision in the Convention is Article 33, which stipulates that a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she fears persecution, a principle otherwise called non refoulement.
According to Amnesty International (amnesty.org), a body committed to the upholding of universal human rights principles worldwide, bodies such as the Organisation of American States, the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity have drawn up instruments designed to protect refugees in their regions. However, it noted that Asia is lagging behind when it comes to protecting the rights of refugees.
With the exception of China, Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor Leste, most Asian states, including Malaysia, have not signed the Refugee Convention, even though the vast majority of refugees from the region have sought safety in other Asian countries.
Those that have sought refuge further afield are increasingly being denied asylum. However, Asian countries are also sending back refugees forcibly or reducing their food supplies to such an extent that the refugees are forced to leave their camps, said Amnesty International (AI) in a report.
Refugees seeking asylum in the richer Asian countries face procedures that can be bewilderingly complex and unsatisfactory, where they have no access to independent advice or representation, and no real prospect of exercising their right to appeal, AI added.
In Australia, all asylum seekers face automatic detention while their claim is assessed in clear violation of international standards. In April 1997, the UN-based Human Rights Committee stated that Australias practice of detention was arbitrary and violative of human rights, said AI.
Asylum seekers in Japan are sometimes denied access to asylum procedures altogether. Those who are allowed to submit claims are put through a secretive, arbitrary and often obstructive process. Others have been threatened with refoulement to face further danger. Elsewhere in the world, governments, particularly in Western Europe, are also making it more difficult for refugees to seek asylum.
In promulgating restrictive legislation such as visa requirements, these governments conveniently ignore the fact that refugees fleeing for their lives are not in a position to spend several days queuing at the embassy for a visa or filling out the myriad of forms required to leave their country legally.
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