Refugees and Human Rights: Humanizing the Dehumanized

Amy Nagus, The Unmentionables Development Intern

Human rights: equal, inalienable, and the fundamental protector of human dignity, worth, and freedom. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines 30 fundamental human rights, including one’s right to life, liberty, security, and standard of living. These rights are to be universally protected without distinction, including race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. While states bear the duty to respect, promote, protect, and fulfill these human rights for all people within their borders, many fail in their responsibilities. Fearful of persecution from their lack of protected rights, people are forced to seek safety elsewhere, generating greater responsibility on the international community to accord protection and assistance to those seeking asylum from their lack of rights at home.   

Yet upon arrival in another country, even the most basic human rights can remain unprotected and unfulfilled for those seeking them, as host countries often appear skeptical and unwilling to provide aid or grant refugees with legal status, regardless of their human rights obligations. We’ve all seen the reports and images of people braving the Mediterranean in dinghies and sleeping in makeshift camps, often without clean water, adequate hygiene facilities, food, and access to health care. Such is the case in Greece, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that as of April 2017, over 62 000 people are stranded in Greece alone. The descriptors “refugees,” “migrants,” and “illegals” have all been used, often interchangeably, to depict these very people fleeing from danger in their home countries in attempt to find refuge in Europe. But during this process, rhetoric from the media, politicians, and society dehumanises them and their experience and blurs the individual stories and identities into a common single image: a threatening, suspicious, and resource-draining migrant. This term does not differentiate why these people are running from their homes, but rather suggests alternative motives which could threaten the well-being of European host nations.

This generates the question of what really is a migrant or refugee. Is there a difference? The Oxford Dictionary defines a migrant as “a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.” The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrants goes further to describe the decision to migrate as one of “personal convenience and without intervention of an external compelling factor.” And while the word “migrant” has been used to encompass both economic migrants and refugees, as both leave their home countries and cross international borders, a key distinction remains for refugees, who do not leave their homes out of choice, but are forced to flee. Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as:

"A person who owing to a 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 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."

As such, refugees are people who have been pushed from their home country against their will, compared to a migrant, who has been pulled to another country based on economic or other incentives. But there is also a legal and political difference between these two titles, with “refugee” identifying them as legally deserving of protection, compared to “migrant” which can depict them as undeserving of legal protection or aid. The word “refugee” emotes urgency and humanitarian obligations, whereas “migrant” judges the legitimacy of their motives. Calling everyone a “migrant” risks stripping away the stories of fear and human rights abuses that have forced the majority of arrivals to seek protection and asylum in Europe. This unified perception of refugees in the media forgoes their human identity and individuality, and can in turn decrease their agency and ability to claim their duly owed human rights.

However, regardless of the titles “migrant” “or “refugee,” we seem to be forgetting the one thing that unifies “us” with “them”: the very essence of being human. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights preamble begins by recognizing the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, meaning that refugees, migrants, or otherwise are as equally deserving of protection and dignity as those attempting to deny these very rights. When states deny human rights, we, as fellow humans, must accept the responsibility to protect them. So while we could continue to debate the benefits or downfalls of accepting refugees, migrants, or otherwise, as politicians and the media certainly do, refugees are ultimately human beings, the same as you or I, and thus as equally deserving of our protection and compassion. Shouldn’t that be reason enough?

Join us on our mission of providing Dignity through Hygiene by donating today. With your support we will be able to provide underwear, feminine hygiene and sexual health products to refugees in Greece!