Camille Gosselin, Handicap International’s advocacy officer for humanitarian issues
Persecution or armed violence have forcibly displaced more than 65 million people worldwide, according to the UNHCR. On Monday, September 19, the United Nations General Assembly is gathering in New York for the first-ever high level meeting looking specifically at this beleaguered community of the global homeless. Ahead of this Summit for Refugees and Migrants, Handicap International Humanitarian Advocacy Manager, Camille Gosselin, took time to explain the issues at stake.
How important is this meeting?
This is the first time the United Nations has held a high-level meeting —that is, a meeting attended by heads of state, prime ministers—addressing this crucial subject: the movement of refugees and migrants on a scale unprecedented over the last 70 years. States need to make arrangements to receive them and to ensure they benefit from the humanitarian assistance they are entitled to.
How does one become a refugee?
You become a refugee if you flee war, armed violence, persecution, etc. In Syria, for example, bombing mainly kills and injures civilians, and destroys towns and villages. It has made any kind of social or economic life impossible. People flee to save their lives, and those of their families. If they are displaced inside Syria, they become what is known in humanitarian jargon as “internally displaced people,” or they cross the border and become “refugees.”
Handicap International provides refugees and internally displaced people with humanitarian aid in more than 20 countries. We’re very familiar with the problems they face.
The problems are varied. You might be unable to travel because a country has closed its borders, for example. You might have problems accessing health services or humanitarian aid. It’s important to remember that humanitarian aid is not a luxury: when you flee a conflict, you have to leave everything behind—your home, your car, all of your belongings. You don’t have any money or a roof over your head. You are often alone and separated from your family. You might be injured or need medical care. In the longer term, another issue arises: the social and economic inclusion of refugees in host countries.
Do refugees have rights?
Yes. The first right of anyone who fears for their life is to be able to flee, that includes being able to cross a border without being turned back. All States are bound by the “non-refoulement” principle. The rights of refugees are guaranteed under international conventions, particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention that guarantees their basic rights, including the right to flee a conflict without hindrance, to be received under good conditions, and to access health services, among other services.
What is Handicap International calling for at this meeting?
We are asking governments to apply and respect international laws, and to provide the material means to assist refugees, including the most vulnerable individuals: people with disabilities, older people, women, children, etc.
At today’s meeting, the States will adopt a political declaration. The New York Declaration will reaffirm the right of refugees, which is good, but we don’t expect to see the emergence of a coordinated international effort to tackle this crisis or a restatement of the need for States to work together, particularly in support of States bordering on crisis zones (like Jordan, Lebanon, and Kenya) which receive the most refugees.
In addition to this political declaration, we would like to see an action plan with a clear timetable in order to provide practical and operational responses to the refugee crisis.