The refugee – an international perspective

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( October 14, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) According to the international media, the United Nations has announced that on 14 October 2011, the first returns of Sri Lankan refugees by commercial ferry from India will arrive in Sri Lanka, marking the first time such repatriation is done by sea. 

We have reached an era where compassion ranks higher than mere protection and quality of life is more important than lofty and unattainable ideals. When battles are fought and wars are over , those displaced will, along with the State pick up the pieces and try to make amends. ( File photo of African Refugees )
Thirty-seven people from 15 families will make the trip from the port of Tuticorin in India to Colombo in Sri Lanka as part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) voluntary repatriation programme.

Usually, and in a global sense, refugees run away from rogue governments and intmidatory regimes. In Sri Lanka, when the North and East were overrun by terrorists and the Sri Lanka armed forces were battling them, it seemed to be the other way around, where refugees were reportedly fleeing incendiary battles in a violent area to government controlled areas in the East. These were not refugees in the international sense but were “internally displaced persons” fleeing from regimes of terror and intimidation. Colombo Page, the Sri Lanka internet newspaper recorded at one time that according to United Nations reports the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had taken the lead in formulating guidance for assistance to accommodate internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing from the Vanni region.

At its core, the issue is not one of nomenclature or definition but of commonality in circumstance. Whichever way one looks at it, a refugee is a refugee. The issue of refugees is a global one that goes back more than six decades. At its Thirtieth Plenary Meeting on 12 February 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution A/8(1), which recognized that the problem of refugees and displaced persons of all categories was one of immediate urgency. The Resolution went on to mark a clear distinction between genuine refugees and displaced persons, on the one hand, and war criminals, quislings and criminals, and others, who may claim to be refugees. Recognizing that the problem of refugees and displaced persons was an international one, the General Assembly recommended to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations that the Council recognizes the principle that no refugees or displaced persons who have finally and definitely, in complete freedom, and after receiving full knowledge and facts, including adequate information from the governments of their countries of origin, expressed valid objections to returning to their countries of origin, shall be compelled to return to their country of origin. By this pronouncement Resolution A/8(1) became the first ever official international recognition that a genuine refugee could not be compelled to return to his country of origin.

Resolution 8(1) also called upon the ECOSOC to establish a special Committee for the purpose of carrying out promptly the preparation of a report on the subject of refugees and displaced persons for submission to the General Assembly.

In accordance with the recommendations of the Special Committee, the General Assembly, at its second session held in the latter part of 1946, established the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to succeed the existing international organizations engaged in assisting and repatriating refugees, displaced persons and prisoners-of-war, of whom there were, initially, some twenty-one million scattered throughout Europe. The tasks of the IRO were mainly the protection and resettlement of 1,620,000 persons who were reluctant to return to their homelands either because they had lost all ties there, or because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

The IRO was intended as a temporary specialized agency of the United Nations whose primary objective was to seek solutions to the problems of refugees and displaced persons still living in camps, mostly in Austria, Germany and Italy. Like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), it was essentially a field agency conducting its own assistance activities with the help and support of local authorities and voluntary agencies. However, it quickly became clear that the refugee problem was not a temporary phenomenon and that some further organized international effort would have to be made. The member States of the IRO considered it appropriate that the responsibility for refugees should be taken over by the United Nations itself. Their main considerations were that the time had come for all member States of the United Nations to share the expenditure involved in aid to refugees, and that, since conditions had improved in many reception countries, the United Nations was in a better position to provide refugees with the necessary assistance.

In 1949, when the United Nations decided to assume more direct responsibility for international action in favour of refugees, upon the demise of the IRO, two possibilities were open to the Assembly: either to entrust this task to a department of the United Nations Secretariat, or to establish, within the administrative and financial framework of the United Nations, an ad hoc body capable of acting independently. On the proposal of the Secretary-General, the latter formula was adopted. In so doing, the General Assembly felt that it was preferable for the future body to remain as far as possible outside the political considerations with which the United Nations Secretariat had to deal. It also felt that a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would have the independence, authority and prestige required to enable him to intervene with Governments, especially in the task of ensuring the international protection of refugees.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was set up on 1 January 1951 for a period of three years in accordance with General Assembly resolutions 319(IV) of 3 December 1949 and 428(V) of 14 December 1950. The Office was established as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, under Article 22 of the Charter, on a basis similar to that of other Programmes of the United Nations, such as UNICEF and UNDP. It soon became clear that refugee problems required the continued attention of the United Nations: thus, the General Assembly decided to prolong UNHCR's mandate for a period of five years, renewable, beginning on 1 January 1954. At its forty-second session, the Assembly adopted resolution 42/108 by which the Office was continued for a further five-year period from 1 January 1989 to 31 December 1993.

Under paragraph 13 of UNHCR's Statute, the High Commissioner is elected by the General Assembly on the nomination of the Secretary-General. Under the terms of Chapter I of the Statute, the High Commissioner acts under the authority of the General Assembly and follows policy directives given to him by the Assembly and ECOSOC. He also reports to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme.

Paragraph 2 of the Statute declares that the work of the High Commissioner shall be of an entirely non-political character; it shall be humanitarian and social and shall relate, as a rule, to groups and categories of refugees.

Its universal nature is reflected in the fact that UNHCR is called on to protect refugees whoever and wherever they may be. In order to fulfil his/her world-wide responsibilities, the High Commissioner is represented by some 90 representatives, including nine Regional Representatives, accredited to over 120 countries.

Persons of concern to UNHCR are those defined as refugees under the Statute annexed to General Assembly resolution 428(V) of 14 December 1950, as well as persons , whom UNHCR may be called upon to assist, mainly through the provision of material assistance, pursuant to resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

We have reached an era where compassion ranks higher than mere protection and quality of life is more important than lofty and unattainable ideals. When battles are fought and wars are over , those displaced will, along with the State pick up the pieces and try to make amends. All concerned will no doubt follow the “shock doctrine” which is based on the premise that people who are devastated by a disaster look towards rebuilding what they lost. This takes time, effort and vast resources. In this hopeless situation, one is tempted to throw one’s hat in with the State which has an uphill task in rebuilding the nation.

When a nation reaches the state of catharsis where a regime of terror is outrun, resuscitation of the society left behind should be done through values driven decision making. Effective leadership must move from conscious belief based decision making to values-based decision making if the aim is to create a future most desired by the people. The fundamental question to be asked in this regard is, “when a decision is being taken, is it aligned with the values represented by the government and the democratic aspirations of the people?. If the decision is rational, but not in alignment with the values, it would not be consistent with the objective of development and growth. In every instance, the nature of the decision reflects the value. For example, if a democracy were to value trust, then the leadership needs to take decisions that allow it to display and experience trust. If accountability is valued, then decisions need to be made which bring to bear the need for accountability. Values-based decision making is not reliant upon predetermined reasoning based on past experiences. It is essentially a forward thinking process which asks the question “how can I respond to this situation in such a way that I am able to express my most deeply held values?” The values-driven leader always tries to let his values and not his beliefs guide his decision making.

A values-based democracy should ensure that development is not merely concerned with material well being and economic affluence, but goes on to cover in a broad sense all forms of human progress and a better quality of life. In this sense, the development brought about by an honest democracy would not be measured merely by the increased per capita income of the citizens of a country, but also by their political and economic freedom and their equal enjoyment of the fruits of growth.