The Right to a Home: A Human Rights Perspective on Forced Migration.

This article was originally published in Freerange Journal 4: ‘Almost home’. We are currently accepting $5 donations towards the Red Cross refugee response efforts with downloads of this journal at the following link:  http://www.projectfreerange.com/product/freerange-vol-4-almost-home-download/

 

Article 25. Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948)

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his fomily, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration sets out a number of key elements that can be said to constitute the concept of ‘Home’. Sadly, we are failing to provide these necessities of nutrition, shelter, healing and a social support structure to all members of the global community. The reasons for this failure are various and interconnected but a major contributing factor is the displacement caused by the endemic problem of ‘forced migration’. How can we ensure that in the future these Human Rights relating to the home environment are truly universal in more than just name?

The term ‘forced migration’, as defined by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, includes a wide range of people displaced either within or outside of their nation of origin by circumstances beyond their control. This definition is wider than the traditional, and often misunderstood, term of ‘refugee’. Crucially, this definition of forced migration includes those people displaced by natural, environmental, chemical and nuclear disasters as well as by famine or development projects. This gives the term far more relevance to the society of the future in which such events may be major drivers in migration patterns.

shadenetting_right to a home

Shade netting in the Sheikh Yaseen camp in Pakistan.

Forcibly displaced people have a very acute awareness of the importance of Human Rights to the concept of ‘Home’ and of the fact that ‘Home’ relates more to a mental or physical state of refuge than to any fixed geographic or spatial location. With this in mind, it is understandable that simple items, such as this shade netting provided by the Sheikh Yaseen camp in Pakistan, can drastically alter the environment and enhance the comfort and lifestyle of the inhabitants.

The first humans started spreading out of Africa around 110,000 years ago. We have always been a migratory species and seem to have an insatiable curiosity about what opportunities may lie beyond the horizon. Our culturally diverse modern societies were all created by, and are still being shaped by, successive waves of migration from indigenous peoples through to more recent arrivals.

‘Forced migration’ is not a new problem, however the potential human and economic cost resulting from the displacement we face in the near future is a serious cause for concern. Environmental destruction, resource wars, diminishing food security, rapidly rising populations and developing ‘third world’ economies mean that forced migration will be a major contributor to these growing numbers in the coming years. According to the International Organization for Migration’s World Migration Report 2010‘, estimates are that the nunber of international migrants worldwide is currently over 200 million and at the current rate will reach 400 million by 2050.

One major accelerating factor in future migration levels will be the acute manifestations of global climate change. Many communities worldwide are facing rising sea levels, extreme storm surges, flooding, drought, insecure food supply and other associated problems causing population displacement at unprecedented levels. According to academics and international agencies, there are currently several million ‘environmental migrants’ worldwide, and this number is expected to rise to tens of millions within the next 20 years, and hundreds of millions within the next 50 years. This phenomenon was recently dramatically evident in Somalia and in Pakistan where simultaneous drought and floods have left over 12 million people displaced or in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

A house in Alaska which is no longer a home.

A house in Alaska which is no longer a home.

Such environmental migration tends to disproportionately affect developing nations because their precarious geography, histories of imperialism, and unsustainable development leave them without resources to face such challenges. This vulnerability further cements the place of developing nations as victims of the global economic order and as mass exporters of human capital. An example is the current famine in the ‘Horn of Africa’ region where most refuge and assistance is being provided by developing countries while the aid response from wealthy nations has been somewhat slow and underwhelming. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently stated in his address on World Refugee Day 2011 that: Despite what some populist politicians would have us believe, approximately 80 percent, [of refugees] are hosted and cared for in developing countries. To take a current example, only about two percent of the people fleeing Libya are seeking refuge in Europe.”

Many commentators believe that developed nations should be contributing much more to addressing this displacement problem due to their superior wealth and their greater contribution to creating the economic and environmental problems we face today. However, the global financial crisis is currently being skillfully manipulated to create resentment against migrants and refugees and to justify rigid national immigration policies and small refugee resettlement quotas. UNHCR has recently expressed concern that the current resettlement programs of the few nations who do offer them are not even keeping pace with the growth of refugees in urgent need of resettlement.

Both permanent and temporary migration to developed nations can play a highly valuable role in development by allowing migrants to achieve safety and stability, to gain skills and experience and to remit money back to their homeland. Current protectionist policies in developed nations fail to promote such valuable development tools and simply guard the wealth and privilege amassed at the expense of underdeveloped nations and the environment.

Solutions

Although organisations such as UNHCR and various NGOs are doing an admirable job with limited resources, the sheer volume of the displacement likely to occur in the future necessitates a new approach. The interconnectedness created by globalization and technological progress means that no migration situation can now be seen in isolation, and also offers us potential solutions to the problems we face. We urgently require a wholesale re-application of our global resources and technology to address the causes of displacement rather than the symptoms.

It is within the power of developed nations to radically reduce the root causes of forced migration by altering the course of the global market and economic system, and assisting democracy and social justice to flourish. We need proactive policies at both national and international levels that target the poverty, environmental destruction, wars and inequalities causing our current displacement problems.

We must adopt a ‘Human Rights’ centered understanding of what constitutes a ‘Home’ and work towards providing all members of our global society with access to these rights without exception. Only a system that respects the rights of all to a stable home environment will allow us to work towards a new age of greater freedom of movement, stability and equality in the area of human migration.

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Further Reading

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights- Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations and proclaimed on December 10, 1948. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtmail

‘What is Forced Migration’ Online http://www.forcedmigration.org/whatisfm.htm

‘World Migration Report 2010- The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change,’ International Organization for Migration, 2010. http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/free/ WMR_2010_ENGLISH.pdf

‘United .Nations High Commissioner’s message for World Refugee Day 20 June 2011′. http://www.unhcr.org/ 4e033be29.html

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Joseph Cederwall is a writer, social entrepreneur and immigration consultant with degrees in Law and Anthropology. He has worked extensively with migrant and refugee communities in New Zealand as an Immigration lawyer and adviser.