That Place I Called Home

Namratha A. Rai
Published: July 2018

A course on refugee rights and advocacy looks into the issues related to seeking asylum

‘There’s no place like home’, ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Home is where the heart is’ are common sayings we see on the Internet or engraved on a wall hanging. While we see these every day, how many of us have ever given it a thought of what home can mean other than a structure? For most of us, home is a place you can come back to, where you spend time with your family, to be yourself, and relax. Basically, a comfort zone.

Moving out of it can be difficult for many and for those who have been told that they are no longer a part of the state or country that sometime back they and their forefathers were citizens of, it is traumatising. With time bars set and unrest all around, confusion, fear and desperation would describe their state of mind and emotions from then on. And whatever happens after that, whether it’s building a life in another state or country, and in worst case scenarios, encounters with atrocities and discrimination, their lives are changed forever.

Stories of people being forced to leave their countries or face persecution or both date back to 740 BC. Edict of Fontainebleau (France, 1685), Muhacirs (Ottoman Empire, 1783), Pogroms (Russia, 1881), World War I (Europe, 1914), World War II (Europe, 1945), Nakba (Palestine, 1948), Idi Amin’s order (Uganda, 1972), when Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan (1979), Balkans Conflicts (Balkans, 1992), Great Lakes Refugee crisis (Rwanda, 1994), War in Darfur (Sudan, 2003), Iraq war (Iraq, 2003), Colombian conflict and the Syrian civil war (Syria, 2011) have seen some of the largest human movements across countries.

Closer home, India has had her share of influx from Greater Iran, Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and exchanges during the Partition of 1947 to the Sri Lankan Tamilian refugees and the more recent Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar in 2015.

Although the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees help protect the fundamental rights of refugees, most of them often suffer. At times, it is because of the absence of domestic legal frameworks or because of countries in the region that are committed to refugee protection but deviate when it comes to their protection standards. The Convention makes it clear that no refugee can be sent to a country where his or her life or freedom could come under threat, a refugee has the right to work, housing, education, public relief and assistance, access to the courts, be issued identity and travel documents, has the freedom to practice his/her religion, and the freedom to move within the territory. Reality however, differs.

Infrastructure, resources, border control, national security and racism are some of the reasons for this. Problems are bound to rise when countries, especially those that have levels of economic and social development disparities, whose governments already face problems like unemployment, scarcity of land and declining living standards see a huge number of refugees arriving at their shores.

Compounding this problem further is the fact that no amount of funds seem enough and that not all countries are doing enough to host refugees. Almost like the sayings, from the frying pan and into the fire and between the devil and deep sea, for those fleeing their country of origin, life doesn’t really get better for most. News reports show that physical and sexual abuse, overcrowded camps, harassment from the authorities, unemployment, kidnappings, human trafficking, unavailability of food and water, boats turned away and camps torched are what they face in their country of asylum.

Every region in the world is grappling with the refugee issue be it Asia Pacific, Europe or South Asia. According to reports, the top South Asian countries that see huge entries of refugees are Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. These are states with the highest population size and density in the region, and are ranked as medium level in human development in the 2016 Human Development Index (UNDP, 2016).

An event organised at Jain (Deemed-to-be University) in June in coordination with Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) provided a platform for a discourse on the rights of refugees and to understand the complexities involved. The University held a five-day course on refugee rights and advocacy.

The APRRN comprises more than 320 civil society organisations and individuals from 28 countries that strive to promote the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific region. The organisation conducts workshops, trainings, and consultations throughout the region besides sharing information, support capacity building and joint advocacy. APRRN’s activities focus on three key areas: Advocacy, capacity strengthening and knowledge/resource sharing and outreach. According to APRRN’s website, Asia Pacific is currently home to the largest population of refugees in the world.

The course and its ancillary events, which was attended by academicians, activists, UNHCR representatives and NGO workers, covered sessions on International human rights instruments, the Global negotiation of refugee protection, Advocacy principles and guidelines, Advocacy with international organisations and UN agencies, Incorporating refugee voices into advocacy, Planning for advocacy, Ethics in refugee advocacy, Statelessness, Strategic advocacy for refugees: Challenges and opportunities, Harnessing national capacity for refugee protection: Experiences from India, Human Rights Defenders, Developing context-based advocacy strategies as well as a film, A Syrian Love Story.

The speakers for the sessions were Caroline Stover, Deputy Chair of the Legal Aid and Advocacy Work Group for APRRN; Dr. Priyanca Mathur Velath, Department of Political Science, Jain (Deemed-to-be University) and South Asia Group member; Evan Jones, Programme Coordinator, APRRN; Prof. Ashok Gladston Xavier, HoD, Social Work, Loyola College, Chennai; Dr. Sandeep Shastri, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Jain (Deemed-to-be University); Dr. Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, President of INHURED International; Adil Abdelmagid, Sudanese Community Leader; Arijit Sen, Programme Manager, Amnesty International, India; Matt Potts, APRRN; Dr. Florina Xavier, CASA and Ipshita Sengupta, Policy Associate at UNHCR. In his opening address, Dr. Sandeep Shastri, said, “In the last decade or so, Jain (Deemed-to-be University) has made an effort to carve out a niche in our chosen domains of expertise which is largely in terms of teaching and research. Research has been a passion in the University as well as for the faculty as also for the promoters of the University.”

He also spoke about the major capacity building intervention in Myanmar where over the last five years, more than 70-75 workshops were conducted with stakeholders by the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education(CERSSE) in association with different national and international bodies. Followed by Dr. Shastri’s address, Evan Jones then gave an overview of APRRN. Caroline Stover spoke about what the audience can expect and take home from the course. She pegged it as, “The basic understanding of forced migration in Asia Pacific through a human rights perspective and knowledge, skills and tools that would enable them to work on advocacy and strategic issues in the future.” We spoke to Mr. Evan Jones, Programme Coordinator, APRRN on the sidelines of the event on different aspects of refugee rights and advocacy. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Does APRRN tackle statelessness within a country? And how has media/social media helped in the case of statelessness?
We have a working group on statelessness. However, as a regional network, we do not get too involved in individual national level advocacy (as you can imagine 28 countries in our membership there are limits to what we can do). We leave this to APRRN’s members in each country. We support our members with training, access to different regional and international platforms or other technical support.

How different is the situation for refugees in EU and South Asia?
One big difference is that most South Asian countries (with the exception of Afghanistan) have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. In addition, South Asia hosts significantly more people (1 million plus in Bangladesh, 1.5 million in Iran, 1.5 million in Pakistan). The numbers in Europe are quite small by comparison.

According to you, why don’t refugees go back to their countries once the war’s over?
Seeking refuge is not just about war. Many refugees flee their homes for numerous reasons. People can become a refugee on any one of five grounds i.e., a refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. They cannot return home or are afraid to do so.

Also, just because a war is over, does not mean it may be safe for everyone to return. E.g. what if the country persecutes homosexuals (that has got nothing to do with war), what if you were a strong political supporter of the former leader and they are now putting all political opponents in jail for long periods of time?

Some people opposed to sheltering refugees are concerned that their countries don’t have the infrastructure and resources for their own people, so letting in refugees mean not enough resources for the locals. What are your views on this?
This argument is used in every country around the world. Put simply, refugees are not a drain on resources or infrastructure. If provided the opportunity, refugees will contribute to a host community and often bring with them their own resources to make a host country better. Many refugees are very well-educated and would in fact be a positive support to improve many elements of a host country. Refugees do not come to simply drain resources. They come in search of safety and security.

Why don’t refugees make an effort to assimilate/participate (for instance, learning the local language)? This comes down to dispelling myths within the host communities. We try to do this through things such as university lectures, public events etc. In addition, APRRN’s Chair is a current refugee residing in Korea for nearly 20 years. He is a professor and can speak the local language. We often have him share his story and explain how refugees are a positive influence for the host community and are not a burden.

How does APRRN help in the case of countries that are not very helpful or open to welcoming refugees, or don’t want any one interfering with their policies? This is actually the case in almost all of the 28 countries in which we work. It varies on a country by country basis. With some countries it is soft closed-door advocacy on one or two key issues. In other countries, it might be naming and shaming. In some others still we have no ability to even talk to the government as they are not interested in talking to civil society.

In all cases, we will still try and change the public discourse, still try and raise awareness, still support national refugee rights practitioners to increase their understanding on refugee issues. We still take issues up with UNHCR internationally or on a country level. We also engage in advocacy with regional formations and try and work with ‘friendly states’ that may be willing to put pressure on other states on our behalf.