Obligations of the Refugee

15 September 2015
The huge influx of refugees into Greece and from there into other EU countries has overshadowed all other international agenda items. Ukraine, Libya, Yemen and even battling the Islamic State are pushed into the background. All one hears is disagreement on proposed refugee quotas, reluctance of some to receive refugees as opposed to the generosity of a few. The legal terms “asylum seeker”, “refugee” and “migrant” are momentarily blurred. There is also discussion about home security, funds needed to accommodate large numbers of people which belong to another culture. Some suggest that they should stay home and fight for their own country rather than becoming a burden for others.

Chancellor Merkel, despite voices of opposition, has shown remarkable leadership and opened Germany’s doors to refugees in an act of generosity. Berlin, waiving EU rules to welcome thousands of Syrian migrants, expects more than 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Germany could cope with at least 500,000 asylum seekers a year for several years. But the current rate of arrivals hardly allows for adequate planning. Refugees have to be fed, provided with medical care, housing, education, jobs and social security. This is why Germany’s imposing of emergency border controls should be understandable.

Since the refugees are escaping unimaginable violence they may find it too soon to be reminded of their obligations towards receiving countries. I think otherwise because their arrival in a foreign land, a different culture, and their acceptance as refugees is in itself a moral/social contract. It entails obligations as well as rights.

The 1951 Geneva “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” as amended by the 1967 Protocol is the key legal document defining who is a refugee, her/his rights and the legal obligations of states. Following are the four articles which in my view reflect the spirit of the Convention:
“Article 2 – General obligations
“Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.
“Article 3 – Non-discrimination
“The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.
“Article 4 – Religion
“The Contracting States shall accord to refugees within their territories treatment at least as favorable as that accorded to their nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children.
“Article 34 – Naturalization
“The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.”

Article 2 of the Convention refers to the obligation of the refugee to conform to the laws and the public order of receiving states. Although not explicitly mentioned this also covers the obligation of the refugee to respect and adapt to the way of life of the receiving state particularly in today’s international circumstances. Let’s not forget that this is 2015 and not 1951 when Cold War had started, Europe was divided and there was no talk about the clash of civilizations, no Arab Spring, no Islamic State and no Middle East chaos leading to a mass exodus from the region.

Since national decisions to receive refugees are taken despite considerable opposition and at considerable political cost, refugees have to do their utmost to make sure that their presence does not become the subject of a larger controversy. Most of the forty-six articles of the Convention are about the obligations of states towards the refugees. Still, refugees may experience difficulties. They may face what they would perceive as prejudice, discrimination. They would need to deal with these through the administrative and legal channels envisaged in the Convention.

Article 4 of the Convention guarantees refugees’ freedom to practice their religion. Turks started going to Germany in the early 1960s, not as refugees but as migrant workers. For decades Turkish governments made “attachment to national and moral values” the focal point of their public discourse towards them. What they meant was “Turkishness” and “Muslimness” as if migrants were soon to become oblivious to their roots and their faith. This led to question marks both in the German public and the migrant community and may have slowed down integration. As a matter of fact nobody interfered with their right to practice their religion. And, they have always maintained close ties to Turkey. Refugees now arriving in Europe would be well-advised to bear that in mind. Beyond that, it is in their high interest not to allow questions of faith to become politicized. Europe is essentially secular. Refugees who are mostly running away from sectarian strife will have to respect that. Turning religion into an element of collective political identity would be counter-productive. Refugees’ priority should be smooth integration into their new societies. After all, Article 4 of the Convention keeps the door open to “naturalization”, the legal act or process by which a non-citizen in a country may acquire citizenship or nationality of that country.

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