What is a Refugee Rights Organization?

Before we address whether to start a refugee rights organization (RRO) and how to start a RRO, it is important that we understand the nature and purpose of a RRO. Therefore, this section will contextualize the need for RROs by outlining the international and regional legal framework relating to refugee rights, and explain how refugee rights can be denied despite these frameworks. It then highlights the principles of a RRO, and proposes a set of core tools that RROs can utilize to address existing challenges. This section is intended to develop a common understanding of what a refugee rights organization is as the basis for further discussions in the toolkit.

The legal framework for refugee rights

Refugees seek safety in another country when they experience a threat of persecution and because their own country is unwilling or unable to protect their fundamental rights. When faced with serious violations of their human rights, they have no choice but to leave their homes, their families and communities in order to survive.

By definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments. In lieu of State protection, the international community created key international and regional agreements to safeguard the rights of refugees.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, and its 1967 Protocol, is the only global legal instrument dealing with the status and rights of refugees, while regional agreements include the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugees’ human rights, including the principle of non-refoulement, stating that a refugee “should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom”. Other refugee rights, also endorsed by human rights treaties, include the right to work, the right to freedom of movement, the right to housing, education, justice, and more. For more information on refugee and human rights law, you may refer to the Refugee rights law: The building block section of the toolkit.

The gaps in refugee and human rights protection in practice

However, although ratified by 147 countries, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol do not ensure refugees’ enjoyment of their fundamental human rights in their host countries. In fact, many signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention regularly deny refugees’ their rights through restrictive national refugee policies. Some examples of common challenges include:

  • Countries with an encampment policy deny refugees’ right to freedom of movement. Unable to work or move freely, many refugees choose to live outside of the camps and face constant risk of arrest and detention, while those that remain in the camp depend heavily on humanitarian aid.
  • Administrative barriers and nationality-based restrictions impede refugees’ access to safe and lawful employment, access to housing and education.
  • Physical and idiosyncratic barriers (lack of roads and lawyers) limit access to justice for the most vulnerable and poor. In this context, refugees are the least likely candidates to challenge discriminatory practices, living in the geographic and social peripheries of their respective host countries.
  • Host countries with high levels of unemployment create a hostile environment to incoming migration flows: both economic migrants and forced migrants tend to be regarded as the same. In a context of large-scale humanitarian influxes, the dominating focus is on channelling international funds to cover immediate food, health and shelter needs, but with little outlook for long-term livelihoods of refugees.

In addition, refugees continue to be denied rights in countries that are non-signatory to the 1951 Convention. They live on the margins of society, fearful of arbitrary harassment, extortion, arrest and detention as “undocumented migrants”.

Adopting a rights-based approach in a refugee rights organization

To bridge the gap between law on paper and in practice, and to advocate for better refugee protection, a refugee rights organization seek to provide the tools for refugees to assert their rights.

As a founding premise, refugees are people entitled to rights, not just people with needs. Upon this basis, a refugee rights organization adopts a rights-based approach to provide the tools refugees need to assert these rights. It approach uses a framework that integrates the norms, principles, standards and goals of the international human rights system into the plans and processes of refugee protection. This is fundamentally different to a charity or needs-based approach commonly adopted in the existing ecosystem.

Charity approach Needs approach Rights-based approach
Focus on input not outcome Focus on input and outcome Focus on process and outcome
Emphasizes increasing charity Emphasizes meeting needs Emphasizes realizing rights
Recognizes moral responsibility of rich towards poor Recognizes needs as valid claims Recognizes individual and group rights as claims toward legal and moral duty-bearers
Individuals are seen as victims Individuals are objects of development interventions Individuals and groups are empowered to claim their rights
Individuals deserve assistance Individuals deserve assistance Individuals are entitled to assistance
Focuses on manifestation of problems Focuses on immediate causes of problems Focuses on structural causes and their manifestations

The core tools of a refugee rights organization help refugees assert their rights. These tools can tackle existing gaps on individual, community and policy levels, and may include:

  • Legal services: to provide individualized legal information, counsel and representation to refugees and asylum seekers. This includes navigating the legal process to obtain refugee status, vindicate workplace rights, access education, healthcare, and financial institutions, and demand equal protection of police and courts.
  • Community legal empowerment: to provide Know Your Right workshops for refugees understand their options and how to assert them. Refugee leaders receive training on how to provide basic legal assistance to others in their community, and launch their own social justice initiatives. To facilitate self-sufficiency, refugee work rights workshops and women’s groups for survivors of gender-based violence are also provided.
  • Policy advocacy: to advocate for changes in law and policy that improve refugees’ access to rights, working with government officials and global decision-makers to develop and promote solutions to systemic rights violations
  • Strategic litigation: to establish legal precedents for refugee rights through test cases in local and regional courts. This reduces the need for legal aid by making refugee rights the norm, so that refugees can access their rights automatically without having to fight for them.

These rights-based approaches tackle the existing legal landscape on individual, community, national and international levels. By utilizing a combination of these tools, it attempts to give refugees more options. Ultimately, a RRO seeks to transform the traditional approach of humanitarian handouts into a sustainable solution that gives refugees the tools to provide for themselves and make choices about their own lives.

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