USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Refugee Warehousing International Standards

International law does not look favorably upon the warehousing of refugees—the common practice of denying refugees their rights to work, move freely, or pursue a decent life while in exile.  Over the years, the international community has recognized that refugees deserve special protection.  Take a look at the section below, which highlights relevant sources of international legal standards.  

Universal Refugee Instruments

1.   The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees — the refugee “Bill of Rights,” setting forth the rights to wage-earning employment (Art. 17), self-employment (Art. 18), the practice of professions (Art. 19), private property (Art. 13), intellectual property (Art. 14), freedom of movement and residence (Art. 26), and travel documents (Art. 28).

In 2002, the States Party to the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol issued a declaration recognizing “the enduring importance” of the Convention which “sets out rights, including human rights, and minimum standards of treatment” for refugees.  In the declaration, the Parties “Reaffirm our continued commitment … to upholding the values and principles embodied in these instruments … which require respect for the rights and freedom of refugees.” Take a look at this current list of States Party to the Convention and this list of “reservations” some countries have made to try to limit their obligations under some of the Articles.

The Executive Committee of UNHCR, consisting of representatives of some 70 governments, issues Conclusions (resolutions) at its annual meetings in Geneva.  Considered “soft law,” they represent a consensus of the Member States including several countries that host significant refugee populations but have not yet ratified the 1951 Convention.

Conclusion 50 (j) [1988] recognizes gainful employment as a “basic economic and social right … essential to the achievement of self-sufficiency and family security for refugees and … vital to the process of re-establishing the dignity of the human person and of realizing durable solutions to refugee problems.”  Paragraph (k) encourages States “examine their laws and practices, with a view to identifying and to removing” obstacles to refugee employment.

Conclusion 65 (c) [1991] encourages States “to avoid unnecessary and severe curtailment of their freedom of movement … including through the issue of necessary personal documentation and permission to return after travel abroad.”

Conclusion 102(m) [2005] “Recognizes that the participation of refugee women and men in the economic life of the host country is an important means of facilitating their active contribution to the attainment of their own self-reliance; and encourages State Parties to respect the full range of rights included in the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol and, mindful of the particular conditions applicable, to explore the most practical and feasible means to accord freedom of movement and other important rights underpinning self-reliance;”

Conclusion 104 (m) [2005] "(i) recognizes that the protection in all States, of basic civil, economic and social rights, including freedom of movement and the right to engage in income-generating activities is essential to the achievement of self-reliance of refugees [and] (ii) encourages all States hosting refugees … to examine their laws and practices, with a view to identifying existing obstacles to refugee employment."

Conclusion 105 [2006] recognized that “women and girls may be exposed to certain risks, … in camps, for example, their freedom of movement and capacity to earn a livelihood may be more restricted and they may be more exposed there to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) … (e) Risk factors … may include … lack of access to livelihoods [and] those informal justice practices which violate the human rights of women and girls; …  (k) The empowerment of displaced women and girls is to be enhanced including by partnerships and actions to: …  ii. strengthen women's and girls' capacities, including … by enhancing food security, livelihood opportunities, freedom of movement and economic independence, including where appropriate through access to labour markets; … (p) Recommended longer-term responses and solutions include partnerships and actions to: …  iv. establish mechanisms … to enable them, where appropriate, to integrate locally and safely in the country of asylum, including by examining possibilities for voluntary relocation elsewhere in the country.”

2.   The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognizing—for everyone, not just refugees—the rights of freedom of movement and residence, including the right to leave any country (Art. 13), private property (Art. 17), and the right to work (Art. 23).

3.   The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, recognizing the right to freedom of movement and residence, including the right to leave any country (Art. 12).

4.   The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, recognizing the right to work (Art. 6).

5.   The 1965 Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States ("Casablanca Protocol") by the League of Arab States provides that, in each State Party, Palestinian refugees should "have the right of employment on part with its citizens" and freedom of movement including international travel documents and the rights to enter, leave, and return to states party to it.

6.   The 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, calling on members of the African Union to apply the provisions of the 1951 Convention (above) to a broader range of refugees, including those fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order” (Art. 1(2)) and providing that, should any member find difficulty in continuing to grant asylum to refugees, other members shall “in the spirit of African solidarity” lighten the burden (Art. 2(4)).

The Preamble recognizes the 1951 Convention as “the basic and universal instrument relating to the status of refugees” and calls on AU members not only to ratify it and 1967 Protocol but “meanwhile [i.e., even if they have not ratified them] to apply their provisions to refugees in Africa.”  According to Article 8(2), the African Convention is “the effective regional complement in Africa of the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees,” which it incorporates by reference.  (Nearly every one of the 53 parties to the 1969 African Refugee Convention is also party to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol; the only exceptions are Comoros, Eritrea, Libya, and Mauritius.)

According to UNHCR,

the OAU Refugee Convention has been clearly identified as a basis for the Office's protection work in Africa. This is of special importance in so far as it confirms the Office's protection role with regard to persons falling within the wider “refugee" definition which figures in the OAU Refugee Convention.

7.   The 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNHCR includes the following: (Emphasis added)

International protection…3. Both UNHCR and the ILO recognize the basic importance of accepted international minimum standards for the protection of refugees, particularly as regards economic and social rights. Both organisations will co-operate closely in the application of existing standards and in the framing of new standards in this field. In developing such new standards, the vulnerable situation of refugees will be given special consideration. 4. The voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement of large numbers of refugees and displaced persons of concern to UNHCR requires diverse inter-related socio-economic measures to facilitate their rehabilitation and/or integration into new communities in order to enable them to lead full and productive lives. In this connection and in the context of strengthening inter-agency co-operation within the UN system, UNHCR may seek the support and advice of the ILO in areas of its competence. 5. The ILO's fields of competence include, inter alia, employment creation, income-generating projects, self-employment and wage-earning opportunities, manpower and skills surveys, vocational training and skill development programmes, training and technical support to artisans, craft workers and small entrepreneurs, and the rehabilitation of the handicapped or disabled. Whenever appropriate and feasible, joint UNHCR-ILO projects for surveys, feasibility studies and assistance measures in the above fields will be established, subject to mutually agreed funding arrangements. …7. The focus of UNHCR-ILO co-operation in respect of international assistance to refugees and displaced persons will be in the field. ILO regional and area offices and country representatives (and, where appropriate, regional advisers/chief technical advisers), and UNHCR representatives and field staff should establish contacts for the exchange of information and views, and should render each other full assistance in the achievement of the objectives of this Memorandum.

8.   The 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees does not ban camps but its Article 6 seeks to ensure that they be set up “at a reasonable distance from the frontier with a view to improving the protection afforded to refugees, safeguarding their human rights and implementing projects aimed at their self-sufficiency and integration into the host society.”  Article 11 calls on states with many refugees to study “the possibilities of integrating them into the productive life of the country … thus making it possible for refugees to enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights.”

9.   The 2003 Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship, also known as the “Stockholm Conclusions” define humanitarian action to include human dignity, protection, and implementation of international refugee law.  As one of its General Principles, it lists:

Respect and promote the implementation of international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights.  …Provide humanitarian assistance in ways that are supportive of recovery and long-term development, striving to ensure support, where appropriate, to the maintenance and return of sustainable livelihoods and transitions from humanitarian relief to recovery and development activities.

10.   The 2004 South Asia Declaration on Refugees by the Eminent Persons Group on Refugee and Migratory Movements in South Asia, uses a similarly broad definition of the word refugee (Recommendation 4) and provides (Recommendation 14(a)(v) and (vii) that

Every refugee... shall have the right to: ... choose his place of residence and move freely within the territory of the country of asylum, ... be issued identity documents, [and] be issued travel documents for the purpose of travel outside and back to the territory of the country of first asylum...

It also calls on Governments "To be liberal, as far as possible, in permitting refugees to work and to become self-reliant" (Recommendation 18).

11.   On February 21, 2006, ministers of the seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda, issued the Nairobi Declaration, committing themselves to “effective protection” of refugees and “to include refugees, returnees, and IDPs and host communities in our development agenda.”

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