What Happened at the Refugee Summits?

By Sarah Hunter


Photo: photos_mweber

Last week, there were two summits headed by world leaders to address the increasing global refugee and migrant crisis. Though historic in their initiation and lofty in their goals, whether the ideals advanced in these Summits will come to fruition remains to be seen.

UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants 

On Monday, September 19th, the UN General Assembly gathered for the inaugural Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The 193 member-states adopted The New York Declaration, which focuses on improving the social, political, and legal status of the increasing number of refugees and migrants. While the UN itself has advocated for a “soft law” approach to the crisis, which is very much what the New York Declaration is given that it does not bind countries to any particularized course of action but only encourages general concepts, many feel that this Declaration is toothless.

There are estimated to be 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 21.3 million of whom are refugees. Nearly half of the refugees in the world are children. Given this historic rise in displaced population, the international response should be vigorous, not just symbolic. But world politics move slowly and world consensus even slower, so while the results of the Summit may not satisfy all involved, and certainly will not have an immediate effect on the lives of the many displaced, it is arguably a step forward. But with the more robust Global Compact on Refugees proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon postponed until 2018, organizations like Amnesty International have gone so far as to call the Summit an abject failure.


Leaders’ Summit on Refugees

On the heels of the UN Summit, 48 countries along with the World Bank and European Union, met for the Leader’s Summit on Refugees co-hosted by the US, the UN Secretary General, Ethiopia, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Sweden and Jordan to discuss the possibility of increasing global commitments to humanitarian efforts. The Leader’s Summit also focused on how international organizations could address the refugee crisis. Although this summit was more narrowly tailored in scope, as it only addressed refugees and not migrants or internally-displaced populations, it was still similar to the UN summit in its soft response to the problem. The Summit called for increasing education and work opportunities for refugees while creating more long-term solutions for refugees that address issues such as changing broken asylum systems.

Though still disappointing, the Summit did call for participants to pledge to resettle 360,000 refugees into third-party countries and increase funding to efforts by $4.5 billion. This includes efforts from the private sector as 51 companies have committed $650 million to finance efforts.

Some groups like the International Rescue Committee praise these efforts as well as the World Bank’s increased involvement in refugee response. But other groups including Human Rights First thinks that both of these Summits fail to adequately address this global humanitarian crisis by ignoring causes of the crisis and offering piecemeal solutions. After all, the UN has said that 10% of refugees globally, or over 2 million, are in need of permanent resettlement, and these commitments only chip away at that number. As far as actual commitments, neither Summit makes any binding promises and with the U.S. appropriations for 2017 currently showing cuts to the refugee resettlement program, it is hard to say what will actually come out of these well-intentioned, but ultimately unenforceable promises.

Dignity Denied to Refugee Women in Detention Centers

Dignity Denied to Refugee Women in Detention Centers

By Jenna Klein

With Famine Crisis Thousands of Somalis Flee to Ethiopia Refugee Camps

Photo credit: United Nations Photo

Only four months ago, in October 2015, the Australian government secretly flew a pregnant Somali refugee back to one of its immigration detention centers on the island of Nauru, preventing her from terminating her pregnancy. The woman, known by the pseudonym Abyan, was raped at the detention center in July, but because of the restrictive Nauruan abortion laws she requested to be flown to Australia in order to terminate her pregnancy. While her request was granted and she was brought to Australia, there was a “miscommunication” that led to her abrupt removal back to Nauru. The Australian government claims that Abyan refused treatment by declining to attend a medical consultation, but Abyan and her lawyers deny this allegation and protest that she only wanted further counseling.

After receiving international pressure to resolve the situation and advice from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to find a “decent” healthcare outcome for Abyan, the Australian government agreed to fly her back for further counseling and treatment. While Abyan’s particular story is troubling for many reasons, her case highlights broader international human rights violations in the treatment of female refugees and asylum-seekers, not only in Australia but worldwide. This story draws attention to the high rate of unprosecuted sexual violence and assault taking place within refugee camps and is indicative of the lack of reproductive rights and justice for refugees and asylum-seekers around the world.

A Note on Indefinite Detention

As fellow student contributor Sarah Hunter wrote last October, before the story about Abyan was even reported, human rights groups have condemned Australia’s policy of indefinite detention centers as a violation of international refugee laws. Prolonged detention can have grave physical and psychological consequences. These types of detention facilities have been denounced for their inhumane conditions and use of unnecessary violence. Moreover, refugees and asylum-seekers are inherently a more vulnerable population due to the conditions which forced them to leave their country of origin in the first place as well as their attenuated status in a given host country. And within this highly susceptible group, there are particularly vulnerable sub-categories of detained individuals who require heightened attention and care. While Amnesty International identified four of these sub-groups in their report (Stateless persons, Children, Family Groups and ‘Pacific Solution’ detainees), I believe that there is a larger group that deserves special consideration: Women.

Sexual Violence in Refugee Camps

Refugee women are entitled to and require far greater protection against sexual assault than they are currently afforded. Women often are forced to flee their homes due to extreme sexual violence, only to experience further assault and abuse as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued guidelines in 1995 for the prevention and response to sexual violence issues for refugees. However, the prevalence in recent years of stories like Abyan’s is alarming. Even more troubling is the fact that many women, including Abyan, are too afraid of retaliation to report the crimes. This means that in addition to the number of reported cases, there are many more women suffering silently under violent attack as they try to gain access to safety in a new home.

Women are subjected to sexual violence and abuse not just from other refugee men in the camp but also at the hands of government and humanitarian officials. This obviously creates serious issues relating to execution of effective protection and prosecution policies. So while numerous international treaties and conventions work to provide protection for the rights of refugee women, continued international attention and support is required to adequately attend to the problems with their implementation and to provide uninhibited access to justice for these women. In December, in response to the consistent allegations of human rights abuses and sexual assault, concerned citizens circulated a petition urging Australia to ratify the UN’s protocol against torture, which would allow UN inspection of immigration detention centers. Countries like Australia with large populations of refugee and asylum-seekers need to address the human rights abuses taking place in their offshore refugee camps and the international community must hold them accountable.

Reproductive Rights and Justice for Refugees

International law clearly establishes reproductive rights for refugees. Again, UNHCR issued guidelines for the specific protection of refugee women. Moreover, reproductive rights for all human beings, including refugees and internally displaced individuals, were firmly recognized in the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. However, just because the international community has acknowledged the right and identified a population in need of extra protection does not mean that countries have ensured effective care or protection for the sexual and reproductive health of these women. The truth is that many crucial reproductive health interventions for refugees, such as emergency contraception and access to safe abortion services, are surrounded with such ideological controversy that providing proper care becomes extremely difficult, if not practically impossible.

Without adequate services available, the acknowledgment of reproductive rights as fundamental international human rights is without force. Abyan’s story provides one example of the severe and disturbing consequences this lack of care can have. Another example emerged from the same refugee camp only weeks after Abyan’s story was released. Medical authorities on Nauru refused to send a refugee to Australia for a complex birth procedure, despite insistence that her and her baby’s health were both in extreme danger. While Australia cited its policy that refugee women must give birth on Nauru, doctors at the Nauru Hospital desperately scoured the Internet (specifically, LinkedIn) for a specialist who would fly to the island to provide the care that was required to save the lives of the woman and her child. The fact that medical professionals were forced to resort to such extreme measures demands closer international scrutiny of the quality of reproductive care that is offered to refugee women. Women who have already suffered unbelievable trauma, women whose precarious immigration status affords them little to no control over their reproductive choices, and women whose rights we have committed to protecting as an international community.


Abyan’s experiences serve an important purpose as they prompt the international community to examine the severe human rights violations associated with the treatment of refugees in indefinite detention, sexual assault in refugee camps and reproductive rights for refugee women. These are issues of equality and human dignity. Non-citizens should have access to the same quality of fundamental health and justice services as citizens. And women deserve to retain control over their reproductive choices and bodily integrity, despite their immigration status. Refugee women represent one of the most vulnerable populations in the world and the international community has an affirmative duty to protect their rights and bodies from systematic, institutionalized abuse.

Jenna Klein is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.

Stateless and Stranded at Sea: The Rohingya Migrant Crisis

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By: Jenna Klein

Myanmar (or Burma, if you are in the US or UK), a country uniquely situated in between major world powers in Southeast Asia, has a complex and tumultuous history. Since opening its borders in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar has begun to rejoin the international community and has attracted steadily increasing numbers of tourists who are eager to experience and appreciate a rich culture and stunning geographic landscape. I myself was one of those eager tourists. I visited Myanmar this past June and spent time traveling through the bustling city of Yangon (Rangoon), to the traditional heritage sites of Bagan and the beautiful farmlands surrounding Inle Lake. My overwhelming impression, besides awe at the incredible historic preservation and exhaustion under the oppressively humid heat, was of the genuine kindness and enthusiasm with which I was welcomed to each new place by the locals.

However, from my experience it is hard to grasp the events immediately preceding my arrival. In May of this year thousands of displaced Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, took to the sea in precariously small boats in order to flee a lifetime of persecution and abuse in Myanmar. I found the contrast perverse: how could a place so welcoming to foreigners be so inhumane and intolerant toward their own people? Moreover, what role does the international community play in ending this systemic violation of fundamental human rights? While the events over the summer sparked important international discussions and drew necessary attention to a deeply rooted cultural issue, it is not enough. It is easy to let the attention fade as the immediate crisis wanes, but the Rohingya are still struggling to live in peace and, in some cases, to live at all. We have an obligation as a global community to gain a greater understanding of the circumstances that led to the current situation and to continue discussing solutions for the protection of this marginalized population.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar and other surrounding countries for generations. They are, however, distinct from their neighbors in that the state does not recognize them as citizens of Myanmar. The Burmese government refers to this group of people as “Bengalis” to imply they are actually citizens of Bangladesh and therefore living in Myanmar as illegal immigrants (although Bangladesh similarly refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens). The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 explicitly denies the Rohingya their rights to nationality and consequently restricts their ability to travel domestically and internationally, their access necessary health and education services, and their right to privacy. To be a citizen under the law, individuals must prove that their ancestors lived within the country’s borders prior to 1823. While for most Rohingya this is true, they do not have the necessary documentation to prove it. Thus, only 40,000 out of an estimated 1.33 million Rohingya people living in Myanmar are authorized citizens according to the state. As a writer for Amnesty International bluntly stated, “To Burma (and the rest of the world it seems), the Rohingyas are not people. They are stateless.”

A History of Violence Leading to the 2015 Crisis

Hostility toward the Rohingya in Myanmar is deeply rooted in the country’s history, and state oppression of this minority group can be traced back as far as World War II. Two military juntas ruled the country from 1962 to 2010 and the human rights violations that took place under those regimes were so severe that many nations imposed punitive economic sanctions. In 2012, tensions came to a head after members of the Muslim minority were implicated in the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in the Rakhine state. This led to a series of violent riots and attacks over the next few years between the Muslims and Buddhists in the region that resulted in hundreds of deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes. In response, the government established a state of emergency and the military police were called into the region to enforce curfews and forcibly confine thousands of displaced Rohingya to temporary camps without access to sufficient food or medical resources.

To escape this systematic abuse and discrimination, but without a means to travel due to government imposed restrictions, the Rohingya turned in desperation toward traffickers. However, to get themselves out of Myanmar, they often faced continued danger and escalated violence at the hands of these smugglers. In May of this year approximately thirty bodies of Rohingya individuals were found at an abandoned trafficking camp in Thailand, close to the Malaysian border. The discovery of this mass gravesite led Thai authorities to “crackdown” on cross-border movement in order to prevent this form of human trafficking. However the crackdown did not stop the traffickers as much as it turned them to alternative forms of smuggling, such as makeshift boats across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Since 2014, an estimated 94,000 migrants and refugees have left Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea.

The Incident This Summer

Approximately 5,000 of mostly young Rohingya migrants were stranded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea this summer when their smugglers abandoned them in boats with no food or water. Reports of this event were being circulated by May 9th, but for weeks afterward none of the surrounding countries allowed these boats to disembark and in some cases even reportedly pushed them back out to sea. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these young men and women are thought to have died during this time at sea from dehydration, starvation or drowning. Some boats were rescued by fisherman or brought back to their country of origin, but it wasn’t until May 20th that the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide shelter, albeit temporary, to the almost 2,000 migrants still stranded at sea. One Malaysian government official said, in reference to the Rohingya refugees, “I would like them to be turned back and ask them to go back to their own country.” However, as long as the Rohingya remain ostracized by the Burmese government, the truth is that they have no country to return to.

The International Response

On May 29th, representatives from seventeen nations met for one day in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss solutions to the migrant crisis. A proposal was put forward with recommendations for both an immediate response and large-scale prevention of future trafficking, but it was criticized for failing to even mention the Rohingya in the official report. In fact, the word “Rohingya” is so controversial in itself (because it acknowledges Burmese nationality) that high-ranking UN officials and even Nobel Peace Laureate and chairperson for the Burmese National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi decline to use the term. These blatant exhibitions of indifference and dispassion only serve to exemplify the minority’s global isolation.

While the media drew the world’s attention to the crisis over the summer, the role the international community should play in addressing the problem is unclear. Many have criticized the ten nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for their inaction and mistreatment of these refugees. Powerful foreign players, such as the European Union, the United States and Japan, may be uniquely positioned to place necessary leverage on the Burmese government to confront the deeply embedded ethnic conflict in Myanmar. However, there has also been a backlash within Myanmar against this sort of international pressure. Burmese nationalists protested in Yangon at the end of May and in order to control the number of migrants fleeing to the sea, Myanmar intends to prevent members of the Rohingya population from leaving the country by detaining them in government controlled camps.


The stakes of this situation are high. The US Holocaust Museum published a report in May warning that the Rohingya are “a population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide.” Resolving the migrant crisis sparked by events over the summer is undeniably crucial, but it seems as though the international community is “more concerned for the moment about the refugees in boats than the ones suffering on shore.” It has never been acceptable for Myanmar to refuse the Rohingya their rightful citizenship, but it can no longer be tolerated as their ethnicity has become a means to deny them access to fundamental human rights. As citizens of no state, the Rohingya are easily ignored. As members of the international community, we must ensure they are not.

Jenna Klein is a J.D. Candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.