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The protection of refugees needs a strong civil society


Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

Civil society plays a crucial role in protecting refugees – but it too is under threat. Julia Duchrow reports.

In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), counted 65 million people around the world forced to leave their homes. Of these 65 million, 21 million are refugees according to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is the highest number of women, men and children on the move since the Second World War. About 94 per cent of these global refugees left their country seeking protection with neighbouring nations, mostly in the global south. Europe, on the other hand, accounts for the protection of around 6 per cent of the world’s refugees.

Civil society plays a crucial role in protecting refugees and migrants in transit and on arrival in their receiving countries. Civil society groups, organizations, and individuals provide various kinds of assistance – medical support, food, clothing, accommodation, legal aid and political support, especially in situations of increasing xenophobia and racism. Yet refugees, migrants, and the civil society that protects and supports them often have to endure obstructive and even threatening conditions.

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In Germany, Chancellor Merkel took the decision to welcome approximately one million refugees, many of whom from war-torn Syria, in the summer 2015, when civil society showed impressive engagement, commitment and support for asylum seekers arriving in the country. The Chancellor’s motivation was driven by this positive civil society response, as well as by the business community’s openness to receive skilled migrant workers.

Measures restricting refugee protection

However, parallel to this widely appreciated humanitarian action, the German government also passed restrictive legislation. Several countries in the Balkans were declared safe countries of origin, resulting in fast track procedures in which, for example, the possibilities for legal remedies against a negative decision are very limited for asylum claims. Germany also restricted refugees’ access to social services, such as the possibility to leave the local reception centre area, despite the problematic human rights situation for minorities in these countries. In February 2016 it was the turn of restrictions on family reunification in cases of subsidiary protection, and of the extension of powers to expel a person who has committed a crime.

On top of that, many measures adopted by the European Union (EU) and its member states, including Germany, are intended to externalise migration control in countries outside the EU, such as Turkey or Northern African countries, and others that are part of the so-called Khartoum process. This process started in November 2014 as an initiative by the European Union, the African Union, Eastern African countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and countries like Egypt and Tunisia to combat smuggling and trafficking of migrants and refugees on the route from the Horn of Africa to the European Union. The main focus of the process has been to agree on co-operation in border control, building of reception facilities, and identification and prosecution of smuggler networks.

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Human rights organizations criticise the Khartoum process on the basis that the EU is co-operating on sensible security matters, like migration management, with countries that notoriously violate human rights. For refugees, this means facing long and dangerous journeys and detention and lack of protection in the countries where they are stranded, including denial of their economic, social and cultural rights. Furthermore, despite their legal obligations under the Refugee Convention of 1951, several European countries have decided to limit the number of refugees they admit to their territory. Arguably, it was this political attitude which resulted in the rise of racism and racist political parties in many European countries – which makes it even more difficult for refugees to access those countries and survive in them.

Shrinking space for refugees and their support

In many countries all over the world, refugees and migrants are being criminalised, forced to enter a country illegally and often denounced as a threat to national security. In countries such as Mauritania, which finds itself under pressure to comply with demands from the Spanish government to readmit refugees and migrants, xenophobia and racism is rising, despite the country’s previous history of welcoming refugees and migrants in transit. Organizations like Bread for the World, together with partners in the region, try to expose the mechanisms leading to these situations where exclusion is reinforced.

In many countries, refugees and migrants face false allegations of supporting terrorist groups. For example, in countries bordering Nigeria, refugees face criminalisation and are in some cases suspected to be supporters of Boko Haram. In these cases, there is a great need for civil society groups to make sure that refugees and migrants, not familiar with local and national procedures and often not integrated into the structures of the local communities, have access to justice and can advocate for their rights.

In particular, civil society often fills the gap for refugees in situations where public services have collapsed, such as in Greece or elsewhere, and where public services can’t or don’t meet their basic economic and social needs. However, when a government implements restrictive legislation to reduce the numbers of refugees reaching the country, we see movements advocating racism, nationalism, and exclusion grow and become more militant, as has happened in Germany. As a result, refugees, individuals and civil society organizations supporting refugees face threats by right wing groups and individuals. In several countries, groups supporting refugees have also been subject to surveillance and other pressures.

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In short, as outlined in the 2016 State of Civil Society report, if we consider how a society addresses exclusion, reduces inequality and protects minorities as one of the main tests of how just it is, many of our societies are failing, given the dismal reception of refugees in Europe.

Protecting refugees and migrants requires an enabling environment

Refugees and migrants, who are among the most vulnerable in society, can only be adequately protected if civil society as a whole is protected. In many countries, civil society takes over the state’s duties to protect refugees and migrants and guarantee their access to economic, social and cultural rights. Bread for the World supports many organizations, in the Balkans, Mexico, Turkey, Western Africa and elsewhere, that work with migrants and refugees and make sure the most vulnerable have access to rights.

The various organizations and networks of civil society should work together to expose the consequences of the externalisation of migration control by EU countries in countries outside Europe. Only an environment free of suspicion, surveillance and criminalisation can guarantee that diversity in society is recognised and pursued as an important goal, creating an atmosphere that protects refugees and migrants. Further, only governments that support a human rights based approach to refugee protection and migration control can prevent the rise of xenophobia and racism in their countries.

Julia Duchrow works with Brot für die Welt, Germany.

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