July 28 is Refugee Convention Day. This key legal document protecting refugees was drawn up in 1951 in the wake of the Second World War. Ratified by 144 countries, it sets out refugee rights under international law.
The Refugee Convention defines who is eligible to obtain refugee status and spells out the rights they're entitled to receive. It also sets out the responsibilities of states towards people who have been granted asylum. This legal document was originally drawn up to deal with the millions of European refugees at the end of World war II. Yet today, most refugees are not European but come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other hotspots in Africa, like South Sudan. According to the UNHCR, most of them have sought safety in developing countries. To find out about the significance of the Refugee Convention 66 years on, DW spoke with Maleiha Malik, executive director of the Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), the Education Above All Foundation advocacy program.
DW: How significant is Refugee Convention Day?
Maleiha Malik: It is very important at the moment because what the world is witnessing is the largest displacements of people we've ever seen. It's absolutely staggering when we look at the actual facts and figures of how many people are moving across borders. They are either refugees, as legally defined under the convention. But many of them are also moving within their own countries, so they are not refugees under the convention, but internally displaced people. And I think what this commemoration of the convention reminds us of, is the fact that it is possible to use the law and international standards to try and introduce some sort of humanity and compassion for those who have been forced, without any fault of their own, or because of anything they have done, to leave their homes.
How would you describe the situation of South Sudanese refugees living in neighboring countries and those who have been internally displaced?
It's a tragic situation because the politics of the country fragmented into violence, and there has been internal political violence and also violence between different groups for a very long time. In the last 12 years, it's become exponentially worse, after a small break within the fighting. And it's spreading throughout the country and having knock-on effects in terms of access to food, and hunger. And what it means is that people on various borders with South Sudan, and significantly on the border with northern Uganda, are crossing to seek refuge and safety for themselves and their families. It's a tragic situation because I think there was a lot of hope when South Sudan was first established and that hope has been dashed very quickly, and in particular the refugee crisis doesn't seem to be getting any better.
On a scale of 1-10, how can you rate regional efforts, especially from an organization like IGAD and the African Union, to help stabilize South Sudan in order to avoid further displacements of innocent civilians?
There are on-going attempts to try to establish a peace process at the moment, and regional actors are absolutely crucial I think in any dispute resolution in this particular area. There have been attempts by the regional actors, by the neighboring states, to try and bring the parties together. The ministers of the East African bloc said this week that the South Sudanese rebel leader, Riek Machar, wouldn't be invited to the next peace process, which aims at revitalizing a 2015 process between the rebels and the South Sudanese government. I'm not sure what the exact reasons are for that. I certainly think that the talking has to stop. But at the same time you need some way of containing the violence. I think there are questions about whether or not it's a good thing that Machar has been excluded. But I think the really important point is that the peace process should start and there should be a process in place that presents both an alternative to violence and a way of moving from extreme violence through to a dialogue that can resolve the conflict.
Why has the International community lost interest in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan?
This is one of the most upsetting things. When one looks at the situation, and you would know that when there was conflict within Sudan, particularly during the Darfur conflict, but also after that, you had a huge fanfare from famous actors who took to the screen, and a lot of them visited Sudan before the creation of South Sudan, to call for autonomy and to call for the creation of a new state. Those voices have since gone eerily quiet, now that the going has got tough, and it's been very depressing to see that. I think it's a very complex situation and the world community finds it difficult to understand the situation fully. I think there is sympathy and there is compassion. But I think that's not enough. What is really needed is a concerted effort at a multilateral level, at a UN level, but also at a regional level, to resolve this dispute.
Professor Maleiha Malik is executive director of the Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), the Education Above All Foundation advocacy programme
The interview was conducted by Isaac Mugabi.