30 July 2011

World Refugee Day 2011

Okay boys and girls, it's time for my next post! I know you want it, I know you have been waiting for it even if you haven't shown it lately! *hint hint*

The last couple of weeks saw me sharing my thoughts on various fascinating aspects of the digital age in a mini-series. Since we are half-way through, I thought I am going to spice up the time it takes for me to produce my popular pieces on the ICT revolution with an interlude for World Refugee Day!

UNHCR turns 60
This year's world refugee day marks a very special event, as UNHCR turns 60 years old and the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees (dubbed the '1951 Convention' or 'Geneva Convention'), the most crucial legal document for determining refugee status, was adopted on 28 July 1951.

My annual summary of World Refugee Day events, this time from Malaysia, London and Austria!
UNHCR Malaysia stepped up their game this year with an especially great awareness event at KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur's central train station frequented by thousands of commuters and locals every day as well as tourists from Hilton and Le Meridien across the street.

Lots of cultural dance presentations, bazars, an exhibition with photographs and a stage. I am linking three pictures here but you can find the full gallery and a recollection of the event on the blog of photographer Mark Leo. There are a few more of his shots - hand-made bags and other items for sale and dance performances by  kids to a packed crowd - featured in a gallery in online magazine, The Nutgraph (sadly, they are copy-protected and hence cannot be linked).

© Mark Leo

© UNHCR/Marvin Kho

© SIS Study Abroad Blog - Three Somali boys selling their bakeries

Suaram, the Malaysian human rights NGO, also uses the publicity around WRD and the 60th anniversary of UNHCR to advocate for Malaysia's adoption and ratification of the 1951 Convention. Although UNHCR has had a long presence in Malaysia ever since the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, the agency is technically only a guest. Together with Amnesty Malaysia, Suaram co-hosted a celebration event at the Bar Council open to anyone.

Currently, Suaram and more than a dozen other NGOs criticise a deal struck between the governments of Malaysia and Australia on 25 July 2011 to swap refugees: As has been reported in The Economist yesterday,
"Australia will send the next 800 boat people who sail into its northern waters to Malaysia. There they will join about 90,000 other asylum-seekers who have been waiting, some of them for years, to have their claims assessed. In return, Malaysia will send 4,000 certified refugees to Australia and receive compensation for the programme’s costs."
- "Offshoring the boat people"
Very interestingly, the frontal picture from the press-op showing both state parties on a table signing the deal got pulled a few hours ago and was replaced with the picture of refugee kids instead.

Australia's PM Julia Gillard defends the policy on the grounds of "burden-sharing" and "smashing" smuggling/trafficking syndicates (see also a previous article in The Economist when the controversial deal was still being discussed in May). You can read the full text of the deal here and make up your own mind.

UNHCR UK did another umbrella parade during Refugee Week this year with hundreds of people marching across Westminster Bridge raising awareness for protection of refugees. Like every year, hundreds of events all over the country from Aberdeen to Brighton are hosted by NGOs, communities and artists. The UK is perhaps one of the countries were WRD has been practically institutionalised, a major event thousands of people look forward to weeks in advance.

UNHCR Austria did a comparatively uninspired and unspiring street sticker info campaign with a real refugee tent, a popular item on many awareness-raising events world-wide. Although they picked the place in front of the Museumsquartier, Vienna's prime museum complex for dynamic and modern art located between Vienna's version of Oxford Street and popular tourist locations around the presidential palace nearby, visibility appears to be rather low judging from the pictures posted on Flickr (to see them, follow the link here). Why not Stephansplatz, the bustling geographic centre of the nation's capital next to a cathedral like the Stephansdom? Why not the Vienna underground rail system? An interesting question is also why the stall was outside the Museumsquartier rather than in the busy main court surrounded by several restaurants and secondly, why is no larger banner for oncoming cars and people across the street? Most importantly, where are the refugees?
On the other hand, UNHCR posted the insightful results of a survey on perceptions of refugees by the Austrian host society in a German article that can be translated with Google.

The Austrian premiere of the umbrella march (part of the European Umbrella March) organised by Austrian NGO Asylkoordination received more media attention. Equipped with bright orange umbrellas, people marched up to the national chancellor's office and demanded for better protection for refugees, work permits for asylum-seekers and the abolishment of the Dublin Convention (whereby asylum-seekers can only apply in the first EU country they entered, instead of their EU country of choice).

Go back to where you came from - Australian reality mini-TV series
Six ordinary Australians agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers by embarking on a confronting 25-day journey. Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, they travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world, with no idea what is in store for them along the way.

Deprived of their wallets, phones and passports, they board a leaky refugee boat, are rescued mid-ocean, experience immigration raids in Malaysia, live in a Kenyan refugee camp and visit slums in Jordan before ultimately making it to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, protected by UN Peacekeepers and the US military. For some of them it’s their first time abroad. For all of them, it’s an epic journey and the most challenging experience of their lives.
- From the official website

If you want to watch the episodes, you can pre-order the DVD due for release 31 August 2011 in the SBS Shop (or you can ring me up for a special movie night, as I will most likely get it myself). For those lucky to live in Australia, you guys can watch the full episodes online on the show's official website from Australia's multicultural and multilingual media outlet, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

Well-founded Fear (2000) - Documentary

Trailer provided by Video Detective

Originally shown as part of the POV series on PBS, the documentary gives a behind-the-scenes view of the US immigration lawyers determining who has a "well-founded fear" of persecution in his/her home country and who will subsequently receive political asylum. One asylum-seeker calls it, "asylum officer roulette". Read a brief synopsis from the New York Times. It was featured as Official Selection at the Sundance film festival, screened at more than a dozen other major festivals and "is currently used in universities and law schools across the nation. It is in regular use by the Asylum Training Corps in the Department of Homeland Security, as well as hundreds of law offices across the US", according to its Wikipedia article. I am sure the movie is much better than the less than informative trailer.

Do 1 Thing
The motto of this year's World Refugee Day is "Do 1 Thing". Everybody can do ONE thing for refugees. It can be donating money, clothes or toys to asylum centres or NGOs. It can be donating time by volunteering time as a refugee buddy for an hour a week. It can be wearing a t-shirt to raise awareness and challenge prejudices against refugees by people around you. It can be putting a bumper sticker on your (hopefully low-carbon) vehicle, including a bike. It can be a blog post, tweet or facebook post. It can be a link to an NGO on your website or online profile. It can be an art project. It can be beta-reading refugees' job applications in your native language for your national job market. It can be talking to your MP or other political representative about domestic policies or reaction to events abroad. It can be asking your public or academic library to stock up on books and other media on displacement. It can be writing your dissertation on a refugee-related topic. It can be teaching young people about refugees (there are organisations that provide info packs or even organise visits for schools). Just do 1 thing!

Further links:
# Pictures: Celebrating World Refugee Day all around the Globe: UNHCR's Flickr stream
# Pictures: "60 Years, 60 Lives"  by Magnum, a global photo cooperative, in collaboration with UNHCR
# Le Monde: Soixante ans après la convention de Genève, que faire du droit d'asile?

Bonus: Two paragraphs on the Refugee Convention

It's been 60 years ever since UNHCR was founded, a temporary organisation set up to deal with the refugees from WWII until it was institutionalised to deal with other refugee crises. The hotly debated topic about whether the 1951 Convention, referring to the circumstances of flight pre-eminent the second world war and through its amendment in 1967, to those of the Cold War, is still applicable in today's changed contexts. It has often been argued that the 1951 Convention is Eurocentric, in that it is biased towards persecution of individuals compared to those affected by generalised violence (hence the 1969 Organisation of African Union Convention which includes those displaced by "acts of external aggression, occupation, domination by foreign powers or serious disturbances of public order"). In practice, this means that persons displaced within the borders of their sovereign country - be it because the border is too far away or inacessible for other reasons - cannot be assisted by UNHCR unless their national government invites them in, and UNHCR does not actually have any obligation to assist them as they are technically outside their mandate.

In addition, the 1951 Convention does not really provide guidance for the protection of individuals who are threatened with life and limb for reasons of gender discrimination, sexual orientation or environmental degradation (ie Pacific island nationals displaced due to rising sea levels). What effect, I wondered a few months ago, will Japan's nuclear disaster have on the development of policy frameworks for 'environmental refugees', if any? (The only discussion of this I found online is on Radio Netherlands - they appear to have taken down the audio clip but there still is the article). On the other hand, will expanding the Convention undermine protection for those who really have no country to turn to?

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