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Exodus of Refugees Test Limits of International System

By: Mohamed Kouta

The plight of refugees continues to confound international organizations and governments trying to reach consensus on how to accommodate the millions fleeing over.

While some, like Germany, allow hundreds of thousands in, today’s refugees neither solace nor salvation in their search for a safe haven, but instead are regulated upon arrival and discriminated against upon entry.

The Caravan sat down with Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) Ibrahim Awad to discuss how the international system has adapted to accommodate this mass exodus.

“The sitution has extended in time, so can we really talk of a crisis? Or does it – unfortunately – take on the features of a chronic situation.”

The debate on the ‘crisis’ only emerged in 2015 once refugees began to enter Europe.

European analysts, however, have criticized this denomination both because of the minuscule number of refugees in comparison to the total population of Europe, as well as the continents demand for migrant workers for the labor force.

The United Nations (UN) Charter calls for international cooperation in the fulfilment of human rights as one of the overarching purposes of the world body, enshrined both in its Preamble and Article 1.

“But then, you have Article 2 that talks about the principles which must be respected in fulfilling those purposes. These emphasize sovereignty and the equality of the states.”

The tension, he said, is characteristic of the international system. There are actors for whom sovereignty is a secondary issues.

“Sovereignty in 2020 is now what sovereignty was in 1920. You have global issues that cannot be addressed by sovereignty alone.”

Movement across borders, by definition, necessitates intervention by more than one state. However, this calls into question what this international cooperation would look like. 

“The drafters of the UN Charter saw that relinquishing part of your sovereignty was in the best interest of every state.”

The question of enforcement in refugee protection harkens back to the nature of international law, which lacks a proper enforcement mechanism.

“As international law advanced, monitoring mechanisms such as international human rights law and international labor law were introduced.”

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, however, does not lay out how this international cooperation should be operationalized. The major host countries, however, are not party to the Convention, and it has no treaty body.

But the Convention itself is limited by the framework of its time; its definition of refugees only apply to those who have personally been persecuted. The African Union’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), developed a more expansive notion in its 1969 Convention.

Many state parties, however, resort to manoeuvres that would constitute flagrant violations: for example, they make it impossible for asylum seekers to arrive in order to request refugee status. 

These include securitizing refugees, which involves turning them from human subjects into a national security issue. By presenting refugees and migrants as a threat to security, the state is then justified in enacting emergency measures.

“International civil society should push states toward respecting the human rights of refugees and migrants. States that have an interest in resolving the refugee issue, such as Lebanon and Jordan, should also push toward responsibility-sharing,” Awad added.

An estimated three million refugees are currently located in Egypt. Generally, non-refoulement – the prohibition of returning asylum seekers back to their home country in which they would be in danger of persecution – has been respected by the government.

However, the question of visa requirements has been raised. Since 2013, Syrians now have to acquire a visa whereas they had not before. Nevertheless, Egypt continues to receive a large inflow of refugees, many of whom have access to public health facilities in 2007. Syrian refugees also have access to education in Egypt.

“But the question are how good is the healthcare facilities in Egypt? Are education establishments adapted for the demands of other populations which do not speak Arabic?”

Employment is also a critical issue for refugees, who require permits to work in Egypt. This is an arduous process that is not easily obtained.

“In reality, where would they go if they obtained permits? Most Egyptians work in the informal sector, and so will refugees. Being foreign, they will work in even worse conditions at even lower wages.”

“Suppose you give work permits to all refugees, most of them will not find work in the modern economy. So the question really is about investing in the informal economy so that you raise wages and improve conditions of work. This is where the refugees will be inserted.”

Not having access to the modern economy, at low levels of terms and conditions makes refugees “poor among the poor.”

“It’s not just a question of racism;  this exists everywhere. It’s also a question of competition,” Awad said.

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