by Rampe Hlobo SJ

In recent years both electronic and print media have been inundated with horrific pictures and stories of forced migrants and refugees embarking on perilous journeys in pursuit of better, safer and more dignified lives. Their plight, and that of more than 65 million recognised refugees, is known to many today, not because of the 4 of December 2000 resolution of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly – that was unanimously adopted to designate 20 June as World Refugee Day (WRD) – but as a result of the unacceptable phenomenon of “burden shifting” that has seen capable UN member states and regional bodies abandoning their responsibility to protect refugees.

Until the year 2000, 20 June was celebrated as Africa Refugee Day. WRD was intended to be an expression of solidarity with refugees, who at that time, were mostly from the African continent, and traditionally received great generosity from many of the African countries. It is a day set aside by the UN to highlight and commemorate refugees all over the world. Ironically, their plight has been highlighted by the treacherous behaviour of the many member states with no political will to assume their responsibility to protect them.

As the international community commemorates World Refugee Day, questions arise about the authenticity of these commemorations and their real commitment to protection of refugees. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which has been acceded to and ratified by most member states, underlines in its preamble the indispensability of sharing the responsibility, or “burden sharing”, for refugee protection. It states that the granting of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries. Therefore the satisfactory solution to the problem of refugees cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

The irksome challenge of this international cooperation, or lack thereof, in responding to the plight of refugees has been a protracted refugee protection problem.  Political instabilities and persecutions, the violations of human rights, the wars and stalling peace processes that force people to flee their homes and countries continue. They are not addressed as they should be.

Most member states of both the UN and Regional Bodies like the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) manifest an unwillingness to welcome and offer the required protection to refugees and other forced migrants. Others are tired of the burden and general responsibilities entailed in refugee protection programmes.

The global phenomenon of waning “burden sharing” which has unfortunately become “burden shifting”, has for a long time raised serious concerns about the commitment of member states vis-à-vis refugee protection. The fatal tragedies in the Mediterranean migrants and refugees that until recently placed so much pressure on gateway countries to Europe; the crisis of refugees and migrants in the Pacific islands of Nauru or Manus; and the decision of the Kenyan government to close refugee camps, are just a few examples representative of the bigger problem. They are clear manifestations that some of the UN member states and Regional bodies have become weary of sharing the burden and responsibilities of protecting refugees.

The long standing divide between member states of the poor global South, who generously took on this responsibility with minimal international support, and the rich donor states in the global North, has taken its toll. . Tanzania, a long time faithful supporter of refugees, for example, complained that “countries of asylum are to a large extent left to bear the brunt of the burden of hosting the refugees they admit” and “whatever resources that are made available… remain a matter of charity, left to the discretion of individual donor states.”

Kenya has decided to close down one of the world’s largest refugee camps, a decision that will directly violate key refugee protection protocols. Consequently, war and insecurities aside, many Somali women will be forced to go back home to be subject to the sexual and gender-based violence that made them flee their country. As a result of the apparent unwillingness to share the burden and responsibility of refugee protection, we will continue reading about and seeing more shocking stories of refugees.

It is clear that refugee protection has not only been compromised by the diminishing commitment to “burden sharing” and the growing phenomenon of “burden shifting” by many UN member states, it has effectively been betrayed. It therefore means that a response that is not only humanitarian but also security conscious, considers the socio-economic factors, political and regional interests of host states must become imperative. Otherwise refugee protection will be a thing of the past and the betrayal thereof will continue.

Rampe Hlobo SJ is parish priest of St Mary’s in Nyanga, Cape Town