History of the Protection of the Rights of Refugees

History of the Protection of the Rights of Refugees

All through the globe, the nature of refugee status has been a precarious one.  It is definitely due to the precariousness of their status and the aggravated concern for human suffering that global and national concerns for the protection and amelioration of the suffering of refugee have developed.

According to Osita Eze, international action for the protection and amelioration of the conditions of refugees followed in the wake of the First World War. When as a result of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, over a million persons sought refuge outside Russia these refugees had no passport and there developed as a consequence legal problems regarding their movement and their status generally. It falls on the League of Nations to try solving the problems of the Russia refugee and it sought to do this by the creation of agencies. [1]

Specifically, for the protection of refugees and ensuring that the agreement and the arrangement were made not only to enable the refugees to get trail documents but also to regularize their status. Until its demise in 1946, the League of Nations made a legion of arrangement and through process of utilization of agencies, attempted the protection of refugees.

The Second World War caused a large movement of refugees and with the creation of the United Nations organization: a new dimension to the protection of refugees was laid. The international refugee organization IRO was created by the UNO[2]

This body was responsible for the protection, maintenance and settlement of refugees. In 1952, the United Nation High Commission for Refugees UNHCR was created to replace the international refugee organization prior to that period the United Nations High Commission on Human Right contained the back ground work of legal protection of refugees as early as 1947.

The Commission has adopted a resolution that early consideration be given by the United Nations to the legal status in particular the acquisition of nationality.  Two conventions with regards to refugees were adopted on 28th July 1951[3] and the other relating to the status of stateless persons adopted on 28th September 1954, the former was referred to as the general convention.

Rights and Obligations of Refugees

Refugees like other human beings have some rights that are inherent in them because of the fact that they are rational and human and the international communities together with the states owe a duty of protection of these rights. It is because protection of these rights is unavailable in their countries that the refugees flee to other countries for succor.

According to Okagbue, the precise protection which the refugee may enjoy will to a certain extent depend on the convention or treaties to which the host country is a party or on the precise legal status which is accorded to the refugee. However, there are certain rights and standards of treatment which are required of the host country independent of treaties or legal status.[4]

However, international refugees are entitled to civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights contained in the international bill of right and the national legislations. Nevertheless, refugees do not necessarily enjoy these rights on the same footing as national of the host country and in general, the UN convention merely proposes that refugees should receive the same treatment which is accorded to the aliens in the same circumstances.   The extent to which states are prepared to grant the same level of protection to both alien and citizens will depend on the domestic laws as well as the contemporary bilateral agreements.

Furthermore, section 15 of National Commission of Refugee Act provide “every person granted a refugee status in Nigeria shall be entitled to the rights contained in

  1. The articles of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
  2. The Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 31st January, 1967
  3. The Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa
  4. Any laws in force in Nigeria

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

The International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural rights recognized the right of everyone with no distinction between citizens and aliens, the right to work, the right to free choice of employment, the right to just and favourable conditions of work, the right to protection against unemployment, the right to just and favourable remuneration, to equal pay for equal work, the right to rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and right to periods of holidays with pay[5].

Convention concerning migration for employment enjoined contracting states to assist refugees in getting work and to take measures to help them till work is found.[6] The full intendment of section 2 (3) ECOSOCR is that developing countries should guarantee the economic rights to non-nationals as much as the level of their national economy can carry. This economic, social right is granted in order to discourage a dependency syndrome and to promote economic self-sufficiency of refugees.

Civil Rights of Refugees

Certain rights are accorded to all individuals as members of human race. These personal rights have long been recognized in decisions of international courts and tribunals and municipal laws, regional and international instruments dealing on human rights. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) contains provisions reflecting the minimum standard to be accorded to aliens, some of the rights which are recognized in international law include: –

Right to life, liberty and security of persons,[7] right not to be held slavery,[8] right not to be subjected to torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,[9] right of recognition as a person before the law,[10] right not to be subject to arbitrary arrest,[11] right to fair hearing by independent tribunal, [12] right to marry [13] etc.

It is necessary at this point to state that these rights recognized in the Universal Declarations reflecting the standard minimum treatment due to persons may be subject to derogations under the provisions imposed on the freedom of establishment of his profession on the ground of nationality.

Right to Freedom of Thought and Religion

In most cases where large number of refugees settles and do not share the same belief or follow the same religious practice as nationals, it is very necessary that their right to manifest their belief should be protected. The freedom to manifest their belief may involve special forms of ceremonies or models of worship but such freedom of manifestation of religion must be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or fundamental rights and freedom of others. [14]

It is necessary to note that for the interest of their children, there should be no discrimination in respect of the freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children. Section 38(1) of 1999 constitution of federal republic of Nigeria provides every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom… this section by using the phrase “every person” indicates that this right is not limited to citizens of Nigeria.

Right to Fair Hearing and Access to Court and Remedies

Article 6 of UDHR provides for recognition of persons before the law and refugees are also included in this provision. He can sue and be sued and if he commits a civil or criminal wrong (offence) he is liable under the criminal law of the country.[15]

The refugee has right of fair hearing before any court where he stays whether in a civil or criminal matter. Therefore, if the right of fair hearing is denied from a refugee in the country of refuge, before a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, that should automatically amount to denial of justice.

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The refugee could on that basis appeal to an international or relevant regional body seeking a remedy for the violation of his rights, although, refugees are afraid to institute action against the host country for fear of being expelled. The right to an effective remedy through national tribunal and courts is ensured any person whose rights or freedom has been violated.

This right to effective remedy in International Court and it is also recognized in various regional[16] and municipal laws.[17] Because of the vulnerable position of refugees, their right to effective remedy in courts extends not only to courts in the state which they reside but also to the courts in the territory of other contracting states to the 1951 Refugee Convention.[18]

Obligations of Refugees

Section 15 of National Commission of Refugee Act provide “every person granted a refugee status in Nigeria shall be entitled to the rights and obligations contained in

  1. The articles of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
  2. The Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 31st January, 1967
  3. The Organization of African Unity Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa
  4. Any laws in force in Nigeria

Refugees have the responsibility of respecting and adhering to the rules and laws of the country they have found refuge. It means they can face prosecution for failing to obey to these laws. Every refugee has duties in the host country that require acting in accordance with applicable laws and regulations as well as with measures taken for the maintenance of public order [article 2).

Read also: Exceptions and Derogation from the Fundamental Rights

In the area of public order obligations, a refugee should respect all country regulations but in particular, he should refrain from breaking the law as that could constitute a serious crime posing a threat to the community of that country.

[1] O.E Eze, Human Rights in Africa, some selected problems (Macmillan, Lagos 1984), p.164

[2] Grahl-adson, ‘The Status of Refugees in International Law, vol 11, I .leiden, 1966 pp 12-14

[3] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee 1951, collection of international convention agreements and other texts concerning refugees, 1971 pp 25-28

[4] I. Okagbue, The Right of Women and children refugee [1992]  (2) (1) Abia State University Law Journal,  College of Legal Studies, p.40

[5] S.2(3) of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[6] Article 6 (1) (7) of ECOSCR

[7] (Article 3 of UDHR)

[8]  (Article 4 of UDHR)

[9] (Article 5 of UDHR)

[10] (Article 6 of UDHR)

[11] (Article 9 of UDHR)

[12] (Article 10 of UDHR)

[13] (Article 16 of UDHR)

[14] Article 18 (3) of ECOSOCR

[15] RC Changani, Rights of Refugee under Nigeria Law [1997] (6) (2) JHR Law and Practice CLD p. 110

[16] Article 8 of UDHR

[17]  Section 46 of 1999 CFRN

[18]  Article 16 of 1951 convention

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