Refugee Rights with Human Rights Watch
With an unprecedented number of people displaced from their homes, there is no doubt that the world is experiencing a refugee crisis. However, as Gerry Simpson explained to the World Affairs Council, this crisis is far from new. Simpson, the Associate Director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program, joined the Council on December 11, 2017 to discuss how countries are dealing with 65.6 million displaced individuals worldwide. In a conversation moderated by World Affairs Council President and CEO Jacqueline Miller, Simpson touched on the plight experienced by millions of refugees, yet ignored by the world’s wealthiest nations.
Due simply to its location, the United States remains far removed from the recent surges in migration out of various African nations and from the Middle East, particularly Syria and Afghanistan, and into Europe. Simpson noted that while conflict in the Middle East has produced exceptional numbers of migrants, large numbers of refugees have existed all over the world long before the Syrian Civil War, which is now entering its seventh year. Although the civil war, now entering its seventh year, brought much attention to the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP), the United States’ response to asylum seekers hailing from Central and South American countries has all but slipped under the radar.
Simpson, a former human rights lawyer based in London, spoke of the international legal framework put in place to protect the rights of displaced individuals, beginning with the proper legal titles. A migrant fleeing persecution, Simpson explained, does not receive the title of refugee until they have received an adjudication from the country in which they are located. Before that point, these individuals are technically asylum seekers. These technicalities are just a small part of the complexities associated with international refugee and asylum laws.
While onlookers, and in fact many host governments, tend to harbor the idea that the conflicts that produce the immediate population of displaced peoples will be short lived, the average refugee population remains refugees for 12 years on average. Simpson pointed out that some Eritrean refugees in Sudan have been refugees for 45 years with no end in sight. This misconception of how long refugee statuses endure has caused problems for host countries absorbing large populations of individuals fleeing persecution.
For example, Turkey, home to the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, has proven very generous to fleeing individuals. However, the framework implemented by the government was formulated in 2011 under the assumption that the al-Assad regime in Syria would end quickly and the refugees would be able to return home. Instead, the growing issue has resulted in military action against civilians at the Turkey-Syria border after Turkey signed a deal with the European Union in 2016 to mitigate the flow or asylum seekers into the EU.
While the EU has been presented as a region overwhelmed by refugees, Simpson pointed out that in reality refugees make up only 0.2 percent of the EU population. In total, the world’s wealthiest countries host only 9 percent of refugees. In contrast, countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and Jordan host far greater percentages, with Lebanon’s refugee population reaching 25 percent of the entire country.
Simpson’s work focuses on documenting not only violations of international laws regarding refugee rights, but also the individual stories of the people most affected: the refugees themselves. Human Rights Watch as an organization works through both reporting and advocacy to help bring about policy changes in governments to ensure the safety of people trying to flee even worse prosecution in their home countries. However, Simpson also remarked upon the limitations of international law. Ultimately, a lot of questions regarding the intake and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees are about morality.