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Reflecting on this Refugee Week

  • 11 June 2020
This year Refugee Week has been swallowed by the disruption caused by COVID-19, and by the fracturing of society in the United States. In a world where people naturally turn inwards, those who seek protection from persecution receive little public attention or sympathy. It becomes all the more important to reflect on the world of which refugees are part and why their lives matter to us.

A starting point of reflection is to compare the present situation of refugees now with that of thirty years ago. At that time public conversation about refugees normally paid at least lip service to the UNHCR Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Underlying the Convention was the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which demanded respect for the human dignity of each human being, so forbidding the treatment of them as means to an end. In the case of refugees this implied that to respect the rights of refugees was the responsibility of all nations.

In practice it was discharged by neighbouring nations who received refugees, and by other nations which, generally through the UNHCR, supported them with shelter, food and safety, assessed their claims for refugee status, and so opened pathways to life outside their own nation.

Despite this cooperative and principled framework, however, it was not a golden age for refugees. Not all nations subscribed to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, nor to the Declaration of Human Rights. Those that did often found ways of evading the framework. In Australia an early fateful decision was to detain indefinitely people who came by boat to claim protection. Initially a stratagem to prevent access to the protection of law, the certainty of detention was soon seen as a means to deter others from seeking protection. The corrupting force of this practice and its rationale has worked its way through Australian public life since.

Although imperfectly observed, the framework governing the treatment of refugees was an agreed starting point of conversation, and governments felt the need to argue for restrictions on their human rights by appealing to clauses in the convention. Advocates for justice for people who sought protection had strong support from a minority of the population.

Refugee Week this year is celebrated in a very different world. People continue to seek protection from persecution and from wars, but the nations involved in fighting or supplying weapons take no responsibility for the refugees they create. The UNHCR