IF you can, never become an asylum-seeker. The point is perhaps an obvious one, but worth making. Asylum-seekers are people who have made a decision, or had the decision forced upon them, to leave behind everything they know because of what they believe in or because were they to stay, they would have everything, including their lives, taken from them.
You do not make such a decision without being in a desperate situation. In Asia there are countless examples of people fleeing religious persecution, ethnic victimisation, economic exploitation, linguistic marginalisation, or states that simply do not like to hear voices other than their own.
Looking at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees files reveals the tired, resigned, desperation in people’s faces. The desperation in the faces of the 20 Uighurs who found themselves in Cambodia one year ago was evident.
We don’t know what they look like now – we don’t even know where they are, or if they are alive. If they are alive, we can be more or less certain that they will not be leading peaceful, happy lives. Their future now reflects their departure from Phnom Penh’s airport on December 19 2009: dark and uncertain.
A similar fate now faces Montagnards who this week have been told they could face deportation to Vietnam with the closure of the asylum centre in Sen Sok. Up until this point Cambodia had been a beacon for South Asian democracy.
As a parliamentary democracy it has weathered some of the most tumultuous events of the world – colonisation, occupation, decolonisation, Pol Pot’s famines – before finding its own path to peace, stability and rule of law. That path is now meandering, growing narrower and darker.
When Cambodia returned 20 Uighurs to China it did so under the cover of night, after the conclusion of a $1.2 billion aid agreement with Beijing, and with its closest allies urging it to reconsider. These are not the actions of an open, transparent state. A chorus of disappointment and anger echoed around the world.
Member of the European Parliament Graham Watson termed the decision a “sneaky…disgrace”, Keith Locke, an MP from New Zealand, called it “callous and illegal”, and it was a decision Senator Marco Perduca of Italy noted would place 20 individuals “into the jaws of a judicial system…acknowledged to be partial”.
But Cambodia cannot be isolated from other cases. Over the course of one year we have seen a wave of deportations that signal a major, and damaging, shift in the way refugee law operates and is observed. South Korea bowed to pressure from Beijing and detained Dolkun Isa, the Secretary General of the World Uighur Congress, on December 16, 2009, with the intention of deporting him to China on false charges.Thailand also deported 4,000 Hmong to Laos amid international criticism that fell on deaf ears. As a consequence, the old assurances and respect cannot be guaranteed anymore.
China and its protégés – which now includes Cambodia perhaps – are testing a system and they are winning. This is at great cost to refugees, the United Nations and their own citizens and civil society, for it shows the state can operate above the law.
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was established in 1951 to save lives and we must not forget that only 40 years ago, where were many Cambodians fleeing? – they were fleeing as asylum seekers to neighbouring states.
They were not returned to the Khmer Rouge but went on to found vibrant communities that supported Cambodia’s democratic transition and dramatic economic revival.
But after 60 years and clear shortcomings and abuse, what is the current state of refugee law? There are a great many worthy clauses and articles in the UN Refugee Convention, but like many of the codified rights in the countries from which asylum seekers are fleeing, they are not being observed or respected.
In the post-9/11 world, state security has driven an examination of these clauses for the loopholes that allow states to abuse the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. These loopholes need to be closed and the ambiguity taken out of the document so that the principle of non-refoulement can be upheld without question or doubt.
The first steps have been made this year. European deputies in Brussels, Rome and The Hague expressed both their concern at the deportations from South Asia and Cambodia in particular, but also identified concrete actions that are needed.
Firstly, the wording of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees needs to be examined and its articles defined so that no refugee can fall between its lines. Secondly, the UNHCR has to be robustly supported in its work with respect given to its employees, its procedures and with sanctions in place to prevent abuse.
Thirdly, signatories to the convention have to recognize their codified responsibilities and have these responsibilities independently assessed in an unfettered and transparent manner. Unless these measures are seriously implemented, 2011 will see the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees degraded to the point where they become meaningless.
To set such a precedent is too horrific to contemplate. Most of the people reading this newspaper are doing so from the comfort of their homes, their favourite cafes or over a commuter’s shoulder on the way to work.
But I can tell you that the 20 Uighurs deported 12 months ago will never read this and may never know what others are doing in their name – it may in fact be too late to do anything.
But we have a duty and a right to uphold the laws and conventions intended to protect others who do not share our privileges of peace, stability and security. We never know when, or for what reason, those privileges may be taken from us.
If we neglect rights or allow them to become conditional because they do not affect us, we cannot expect others to come to our aid. If appeals to humanity fail, then we must appeal to human self-interest.
If we imagine ourselves far from home and our identity reduced to the number next to a washed out passport photograph in a UNHCR file, then perhaps we can see the value in the rights and protections of UN conventions – and why they must be observed.
Marino Busdachin is General Secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization and before joining UNPO he founded No Peace Without Justice, a non-governmental organisation that argued successfully for the formation of an international criminal court.