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Advocating Human Rights: the Forgotten Battle

In this third installment of her series on refugee advocacy, University of Virginia professor Christine Mahoney explores some of the hurdles in advocating for the displaced in their first countries of reception.

Written by Christine Mahoney Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The shrouded body of 12-month-old Liin Muhumed Surow, who died of malnutrition 25 days after reaching the camp according to her father Mumumed, lies before burial at UNHCR's Ifo Extension camp, near Dadaab in Kenya close to the Somali border.AP/Jerome Delay, File

Last week I discussed the challenges in effective advocating for the rights of the displaced in the global North, given the short attention span of media outlets that follow the geostrategic interests of their respective countries and regions.

Effective action on behalf of displaced communities, who often have no political voice, requires sustained attention towards their plight. Such long-term attention requires impactful advocacy – why it is in the long-term interest of the developed world to pay heed to conflict and displacement in “far-off” places. Unfortunately, at the international level this cause-and-effect chain is broken. There are very few advocates fighting for the rights of specific displaced populations with a concrete end result in mind.

Most generalist refugee groups tend to advocate for emergency aid to keep them alive. This is critical work, but it is important to realize that civil society actors do not have the resources or bandwidth to lobby for the rights of freedom of movement and work for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the few cases where advocacy campaigns are mobilized, it is nearly impossible to challenge the political agendas of the source countries and destination regions.

It is worth noting the conditions in the first countries of reception as most refugee populations try to stay close to home, with the hope of eventually returning. Helping them during this first phase is crucial as it prevents them from becoming destitute and desperate enough to take extreme measures, such as using smugglers and taking perilous journeys.

During my fieldwork in seven displacement zones I noticed that conditions for effective advocacy simply do not exist in these first countries of asylum. For both refugees and IDPs, there are at least five major challenges to successfully advancing access to long-term rights, particularly the right to work and move freely. This week, I explore the first two obstacles.

Barrier #1 – Saving Lives Over Advocacy

Advocacy is simply not a priority for most relief and emergency aid organizations assisting the displaced. Their driving concerns are perfectly in line with the nature of their work; they are focused on life-saving food, medicine and shelter. At the same time, all humanitarian aid workers I spoke with in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Somali-Kenyan border wanted to see improved rights for the refugees – for them to be able to move freely, work or to go home safely. Unfortunately, home is an endless war zone, and even the basic needs of food and water are not being met. Advocacy is put on the back burner when the bare necessities are lacking.

One of the lead implementing partners I interviewed in Dadaab described their main preoccupations at the time: “We pump water for about 18 hours a day, to make sure refugees are getting sufficient amounts. The [supply] has gone down with the new influxes of people. When we had 200,000 refugees, we were providing 18 liters of water per person per day. But the increase in refugees has not been matched with an increase in resources. We are trying to manage with 14 liters, per person, per day now. So we are falling short of the ‘Sphere’ standards.”

The worker was referring to the Sphere Project that the international humanitarian community launched in 1996 to develop metrics for “minimum requirements for sustaining human life in dignity.” These standards entail water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion; food security and nutrition; shelter, settlement and nonfood items; and health.

In Dadaab, which hosts the largest refugee complex in the world, the benchmarks are lagging in all respects. Dozens of infants die regularly from severe malnutrition. Maternal mortality is high and overall security extremely low.

Most field-based organizations providing emergency relief just do not have the resources or bandwidth to engage in effective advocacy of rights, when even the most basic needs are severely curtailed because of both meager resources and lack of political will.

Barrier #2 – Fighting for Non-Priority Citizens

It is important to remember that refugees are still citizens of their home countries. They have a nationality, but once they flee across borders they essentially become citizens of the world. In this sense, they should be entitled to all of the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But since they are not in the nation of their “habitual residence” (with the exception of children born and raised in the camps) there is no clear or coherent process by which they can demand their rights.

The few aid organizations that have fought for rights on their behalf have quickly discovered that advocating for nonpriority citizens is vested in the elusive political will of the host states and the international community. The campaigns often go unheard or fade away due to a lack of reaction.

Most of the refugee-hosting countries such as Kenya, Thailand, Turkey, Nepal, Tanzania, Lebanon and Ecuador are developing, and at times struggling with, economies with significant infrastructure, health and sanitation needs. Their governments are finding it hard to meet their responsibilities towards their own citizens; providing rights to refugees to the expected international standards is not a reality.

This barrier takes on an entirely different form in the case of IDPs. While receiving governments often view refugees as burdensome and disruptive aliens, IDPs who remain inside their own countries experience a range of treatment by their native governments.

They may be regarded as a marginalized minority, as in the case of the Acholi in northern Uganda; an enemy to be destroyed, like the Tamils in Sri Lanka; or as a political tool that is leveraged by different warring parties, as in the case of IDPs in northern Syria. Hence their needs are even more complex and must be addressed and advocated for on a case-by-case basis.

Next week, I will explore the details of corruption and the lack of capacity of host governments, and the impact on advocating for the rights of refugees.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This is the third part of Christine Mahoney’s series of commentaries for Refugees Deeply on the barriers to advocacy for refugees and IDPs and the alternatives, based on her field research from 61 displacement crises across the world.

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