Rights of Refugees and Migrant Workers

updated November 2016

Rights of Refugees

A successful claim for asylum fulfils the applicant’s desire to become a refugee, a status which is greatly valued for the rights that it bestows under international law. A refugee is entitled to reside, at least temporarily, in the host country and is protected by the principle of non-refoulement. This prohibits the deportation of refugees to places where their lives or freedoms could be in danger.

Host states are also obliged to offer civil and economic rights, in particular the right to work. The rights of refugees also extend to access to social services and protection of national laws.

All concerned are expected to work towards a long term solution, either through a permanent right to stay in the host country, resettlement to a third country, or repatriation, provided that safety can be guaranteed.

Respect for these rights and obligations is in considerable disarray. For developing countries, the ideals of international law often prove impractical. The reality of forced displacement compels families to cross borders at short notice, with few possessions and in distress. In such circumstances, immediate protection may be offered in refugee camps, where opportunities to work in the formal economy are denied.

About 25% of global refugees are accommodated in camps. Conceived as short-term emergency solutions, many refugee camps quickly become overwhelmed with numbers, prone to disease and violence, with no options available for relocating the occupants.

Fulfilment of the obligations of richer countries depends on a willingness to accept fair quotas of refugees for settlement. Germany’s agreement to consider one million prospective refugees in 2015 was simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting in its exposure of the recalcitrance of European partners.

The alternative to resettlement of refugees is repatriation, a long term solution preferred by the UN Refugee Agency. But a trend to diluted interpretations of safety for returnees is discrediting this option.

A weakness of the current framework of international law is that a small number of crucial countries have not signed the Refugee Convention. A significant area of Southeast Asia is void of refugee protection, with UN agencies restricted in their access to camps and government authorities. Many of the most distressing experiences of the world’s refugees emerge from countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Rights of Migrant Workers

Migrant workers have little recourse to international law to enforce their rights. Human rights campaigners acknowledge that the right to work in a foreign country does not equate with immediate access to the full benefits of citizenship. Their efforts focus on establishing minimum standards of working and living conditions consistent with the principles of international human rights law.

The initial step towards this goal was achieved in 1990 with the adoption by the UN of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, also known as the Migrant Workers’ Convention. It tackles every stage of the migration process and also acknowledges that some rights should be extended to undocumented migrants.

Although the Convention entered into force in 2003, not one of the major destination states has ratified it. In consequence, migrant workers remain at the mercy of national immigration and labour laws which often provide little or no defence against discrimination and exploitation. Human rights scandals such as the abuse of female domestic workers in the Middle East are commonplace.

Towards a new Convention on Refugees and Migrant Workers

For those who can afford it, cross-border travel has become a more accessible, if more dangerous option, lubricated by unscrupulous traffickers. Weight of numbers quickly overwhelms administrative capacity for assessing and settling refugees, and returning unsuccessful asylum-seekers.

These problems have been long familiar to many governments in the developing world, especially in southern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The sudden ascent of human migration to the top of the international political agenda during 2016 occurred because the richer countries of Europe found themselves in the front line.

The UN’s response to call a summit on refugees and migrants in September 2016 raised hopes that the emerging faultlines in the 1951 Refugee Convention might be addressed. However, almost all potential solutions require a greater and more equitable sharing of the financial and hosting burden than richer countries are prepared to accept.

It seems likely that an eventual solution will be pursued along separate paths for refugees and migrant workers. But  no meaningful decisions were made and the overall process has been put on hold until 2018.


Refugee rights and protections explained by Professor Jane McAdam
from University of New South Wales TV

Professor Hans Rosling puts the European reaction to the movement of Syrian refugees into perspective

Karen Refugees in Thailand – still unsafe to return to Burma and still unwelcome in Thailand
from VOA News

more Human Rights briefings
Political Backlash
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Women’s Rights in International Law
Refugee or Migrant Worker?
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
Source material and useful links

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