“Article 1A of the Convention sets the definition of 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 [her/his] country of origin and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail ...[her/ himself] of the protection of that country; or who, not having nationality and being outside the country of ...[her/his] former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”
The UN Refugee Convention of 1951
The above cited Article 1A of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees offers five important definitional elements that help establish individuals as refugees. The first point of relevance refers to the person being in a situation of genuine risk, whereas the second relates to the threat of persecution. The third, looks more carefully at the reasons for this threatened persecution. It alludes to the possible intimidation levelled against his/her ethnicity, Indigenous status, nationality, religion, membership of a particular social group or from holding a different political opinion. The fourth element examines whether originating from a different country to the one of habitual residence places an individual under actual threat or not. Finally, the Convention advocated that the needs and deserts of the affected should be considered and safeguarded (Pickering 2005).
Nonetheless, this attempt at defining refugees was only superficial and seriously limited. Fleeing from the threats of invasion or decolonisation in Africa and Asia, for instance, was not mentioned: nor was the creation of a new kind of refugee fleeing communism in Eastern Europe and China during the cold war period. As a result, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was implemented to redefine, embrace and protect these alternative refugees who had come under threat from the emergence of this new global politics and relations of power after 1951 (Davies 2008). Unfortunately, the desired aim of protection and acceptance of all refugees has never been fully achieved and many were left stateless, without shelter and refuge. This is still the situation that exists in the 21st Century for many refugees and peoples seeking asylum.
By way of an illustration, after taking flight from their country of origin, many refugees and asylum seekers described long journeys that generated further suffering, harm and, on some occasions, injury. This included degrading treatment, forms of violence and abuse from the traffickers and the terrible conditions of camps on the African or Turkish side of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the conditions that refugees had to face on the supposedly 'safe' Greek island sanctuaries were not significantly better despite UN regulations to the contrary. Often conditions were undignified, unsafe and particularly harmful for pregnant women (Cincurova, 2021). Zeinab Nourzehi, a 28-year-old refugee woman from Afghanistan, for example, fled the Taliban and crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey to Lesbos in 2019. She became pregnant with her first child as she ventured on her escape with her husband. However, once she had arrived on Lesbos, she found out that she had to spend the last trimester of her pregnancy in a tent in the Moria refugee camp on the island. The camp has frequently been labelled as a 'living hell' by NGOs, humanitarian workers and refugees alike.
Nourzehi ended up 6-months pregnant, traumatised, homeless and convinced that Moria was the worst place in the world. She had to live in a wet tent and felt like she would rather have died in Afghanistan. Nourzehi eventually left the Moria camp for the Greek mainland a few months before it burned down on September 9, leaving nearly 13,000 refugee men, women and children homeless and vulnerable. The camp had previously accommodated over 20,000 people, including hundreds of pregnant women. As Nourzehi emphasised, 'when we disembarked the dinghy that took us from Turkey to Lesbos, we thought that the worst was over …the crossing was hellish (Cincurova, 2021)'.
That said, such atrocious maltreatment has not been the preserve of the Greek State alone. In the UK, for instance, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (YWIRC), 60 miles north of London, holds approximately four hundred refugee women who are awaiting an asylum decision. Extremely vulnerable women have been treated like prisoners despite a dearth of evidence relating to any criminal behaviour (Coventry 2021).
At YWIRC, 66 per cent of detainees had been subjected to sexual/gender-based violence in their own country, including rape by police, soldiers or prison guards who represented the State (Dorling et al. 2012) and, because of such, detainees often feared male authoritative State figures. Incidents of sexual misconduct and intimidation by the Serco staff (members of a private, profit-making neoliberal company acting on behalf of the UK State inside YWIRC) were widespread to say the least. The most common of which was the invasion of sexual decency within the compound. The staff intruded upon the privacy of detainees and entered their rooms unannounced while they were naked, taking a shower or on the toilet (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons 2015).
These are not the entire catalogue of the horrific maltreatment of refugees: neither are they the worst examples. All-in-all, though, it is obvious that the plight of refugees begins before their flight and continues during and long after their arrival within transitional and host countries. Publicising such incidences (through conventions, workshops, blogs, journals and books), however, would be the first stride toward bringing an end to the adversity of today's refugees and asylum seekers. For related videos please click here.