The concept of a refugee is an inherently geographical one, a barometer of political instability and the embodiment of forced migration. In current usage, the term has two main meanings; one is colloquial and often political, while the other is legal. In the wake of the humanitarian disaster that emerged after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coast of the United States in August 2005, the media called those Americans huddled on the rooftops of their homes awaiting help and people who had sought shelter in the local sports stadium “refugees.” Many refused the term, saying that they did not want to be racialized as poor, African, or other. Yet others defended the term as appropriate, saying that the Bush administration was neither able nor willing to assist and protect its own citizens in this time of need. In both cases, the term was politicized for specific reasons, yet in legal terms, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina were not legal refugees but rather internally displaced persons. Likewise, references are made to “environmental refugees” affected by global warming or natural disasters.
The legal meaning of refugee is more straightforward; it is rooted in the Westphalian state system in which citizens, or nationals, belong to sovereign states that provide protection to them. Refugees are seen, then, as a kind of aberration to these norms of statehood. The Protestant Huguenots who fled France under the rule of Louis XIV in 1685 are thought to be the first modern refugees. The French king revoked protection for the Huguenots to worship their religion without persecution from the state, which led to their displacement.
According to international law, specifically the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is any person who
as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his [sic] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
One of the major tenets of refugee law, then, is the principle of nonrefoulement—that is, a refugee will not be returned to her or his country by force (refoulement).
Refugees fall under the rubric of international human rights law as well as refugee law, though as Hannah Arendt noted after World War II, the actual protection afforded by such rights was and remains questionable. In 1966, two legally binding human rights instruments were created to protect civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights most closely expresses the emphasis of the Convention. It ensures respect for democratic principles and nondiscrimination. The Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights includes provisions that are more applicable to developing countries than to the highly industrialized ones, such as the right to food, shelter, and basic medical and educational services.
Despite the fact that 144 states were party to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol in 2007, the definition of refugee remains both explicitly and implicitly Eurocentric. The Refugee Convention demarcated geographical and historical limits: It applied to refugees in Europe displaced by events that occurred prior to 1951. The Convention's definition of refugee is spatially coded as European. Substantively, its emphasis on persecution based on civil and political status as grounds for refugee status expresses the particular ideological debates of post-World War II European politics, particularly the perceived threats of communism and another Holocaust. The 1967 Protocol, relating to the status of refugees, amended the 1951 Convention. While it rescinded the spatial and temporal restrictions of the Convention by lifting the European-centered, pre-1951 stipulations, it merely created equal access for all member nations to a legal instrument that remained substantively Eurocentric in focus.
Two correctives to the Eurocentrism of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol are worth noting. First, the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa not only broadened but also reformulated the definition of refugee. It included the 1951 Convention definition but added the provision that
the term refugee shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his [sic] country or origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality. (Article 1.2)
As a legal convention, this provision recognized that histories of colonialism were themselves the basis of conflict and displacement, regardless of the persecution element. Second, in 1984, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees was adopted by 10 Latin American states. Like the OAU Convention, it represents a regional approach to recognize and improve on the inadequacy of the Convention definition. The definition derived from the Cartagena Declaration goes further than that of the Convention to include claims based on internal conflicts and massive violations of human rights and the idea of group designation. However, as a declaration and not law, it is not binding.
Geographers today have argued that legal definitions and protections afforded to refugees through the international protection regime are increasingly irrelevant as many of the signatories to the Convention and Protocol in the global North seek to prevent all uninvited migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering their territory. Some have called the use of geographical tactics of exclusion to preclude seeking asylum as neorefoulement. If would-be refugees cannot make asylum claims, international laws governing their eligibility become irrelevant.
Such geopolitics of externalization efforts by countries in the global North to manage refugees in the global South where possible may well contribute to a growing issue: protracted refugee situations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2006) defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo: “Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile” (p. 106). Sometimes refugees live in camps for years on end; refugee warehousing is another term used to describe the plight of those waiting in confined quarters (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants [USCRI], 2007). The USCRI reported that there were 8.8 million people in protracted refugee situations at the end of 2006. The average waiting time for refugees to obtain a durable solution has increased from 9 yrs. (years) in 1993 to 17 yrs. in 2003.
Geographers and anthropologists have also analyzed the politics of representation among refugees. Humanitarian actors who respond to their plight often render them as objects of camp management or as populations where disorder is ordered. Malkki (1996) argues that “history tends to get leached out of figure of the refugee, as imagined by their administrators” (p. 385). Malkki adds that these standardizing discursive and representational forms that have the tendency to silence people categorized as “refugees” have made their way into the media that report on forced migration.
Citizenship, Diaspora, Human Rights, Geography and, Immigration, Migration
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