There are rights, and then there are refugee rights

I attended the court hearing for the case of the 23 detained Liberian women and children today. The 16 women and 7 children (ages 4 to 17 years) are being held by the National Immigration Service (NIS) of Ghana and are facing deportation. The claim by the government is that they are illegal immigrants, and pose a national security threat, and, as such, should be deported.

This is the 2nd hearing – apparently, according to a journalist present at the first one, the NIS had already chartered a plane to deport the detainees, confident that the first hearing would be the last and a judgment in their favor handed down. Fortunately, the judge called off any further deportation until the case was resolved – and that called for additional arguments from both sides.

Basically, the prosecution (human rights lawyers) are challenging the claim that the detainees are illegal immigrants – instead, they categorize them as “undocumented refugees”. People arrived in Buduburam in waves, and while most were either registered through the UNHCR or accepted on a prima facie basis, some applied for refugee status as asylum seekers, only to see their claim fall through the cracks, being neither rejected nor accepted. Furthermore, the prosecution argues that the undocumented refugees can derive refugee status from their family members if the latter are officially recognized as such. That, to me, is a crucial point.

Indeed, one of the challenges we are faced with, as organizations and individuals engaged with refugee communities, is the issue of how to offer protection and support to undocumented refugees. It seems unjust that because of some bureaucratic failure to process claims, groups of people should be left with absolutely no protection whatsoever. In fact, the defense counsel on the behalf of the Ghanaian gov. said : “If they are unregistered, then they have no status, and they have no rights“(emphasis added) She went on to say that “rights are not absolute” and that refugees “ought to go home”.

In any case, these people are the ones who are supposed to leave Ghana for their home country with zero assistance – keep in mind these people are barely able to sustain themselves on a daily basis, so expecting them to be able to move and re-establish in another country (which is 2 international borders away) is a big stretch. These are people who were already forced to abandon their lives and families during the war, and who managed to recreate some sort of normal life for themselves as refugees. To ask them to leave everything behind again…. ? I realize that people’s rights are trampled all over the world on a daily basis, but I am just shocked at the total lack of institutional or large scale support these people receive (none). For instance, there was no UNHCR representative at the court hearing today – even though the outcome of this trial is absolutely crucial for the refugee community in Ghana. UNHCR — Is it that hard to send a rep to a trial?? Even your intern could have gone!

Meanwhile, in the Buduburam settlement, those who are registered with the UNHCR are signing up for voluntary repatriation, worried about the conditions that they will face when returning to Liberia… Again, this community has no higher authority to turn to – not their own government, not the UNHCR, not the “international community”. Of course, large scale violence did not erupt, and no one died – I suppose if that had happened, you would have seen a lot more attention given to the issue. Why does it have to come to this to mobilize the world’s attention? All the lofty rhetoric about “prevention” rather than “intervention”…. Empty shells that make policy makers feel good about themselves, but seem to be rarely adopted in practice.

The verdict for the trial is April 24th – looking forward to it.

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