Examining the global migration crisis, human rights, and xenophobia

This week in North Philly Notes, Heather Smith-Cannoy, editor of Emerging Threats to Human Rights, asks, Do things really get better once forced migrants escape dangerous conditions? 

In September of 2015, the tiny body of a 3-year old Syrian refugee washed ashore in Greece. The gut-wrenching image of a small, innocent child trying to escape a brutal civil war with his family, only to drown in route to a better life, was not one that I could shake. Little Aylan Kurdi’s tragic journey struck me especially hard because he was the same age as my son. Until that day my research on human rights had always been about the impact of laws on people in far off places—women in Hungary, civilians in UN protected combat zones, and political prisoners in Central Asia. But the image of his small body, face down on the shore fundamentally changed the way that I think about human rights in a rapidly changing world.

Emerging Threats to Human RIghtsEmerging Threats to Human Rights is my attempt to look beyond the traditional boundaries that defined how I had thought about global human rights.  Rather than studying one group of people, in one particular county, Aylan Kurdi’s story showed me to that to wrestle with emerging threats to human rights in our world, I needed to look across the human experience to understand both the causes of flight and the possibilities for the fulfillment of rights after flight. In other words, do things really get better once forced migrants escape dangerous conditions?

In collaborating with the talented academics, attorneys, and activists that contributed to this volume, we arrived at three interwoven themes that capture a new way of thinking about human rights within a process of migration. When sea levels rise, for example, where will people who call small island nations their home go to seek refuge and what will be the status of their rights what they arrive in that new community? If violence erupts in one’s country of residence and they flee, do they have a chance to improve their lives in their new country? When governments dismantle citizenship rights, effectively stripping people of their legal status, what happens when they try to escape?

Collectively, this anthology examines three causes of migration—resource depletion, violence and deprivation of citizenship, which, to varying degrees compel people to leave their homes in search of safety and a better life. We find that violence generates more refugees than resource depletion and deprivation of citizenship but together these chapters show that escape is only the beginning of the story. When people escape dangerous conditions, their prospects for a full life depend critically on where they land and how they get there. Contributors Money and Western conduct a global macro analysis of rights fulfillment in one chapter. They show that the fate of forced migrants depends on three factors of the host state—governance quality, access to resources, and the availability of citizenship for new migrants.

Contributor Kerstin Fisk shows that when refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia sought asylum in South Africa, they were instead subjected to organized xenophobic violence carried out with the support of the South African government. In the chapter I wrote, I show that as Rohingya refugees are stripped of citizenship by their government in Myanmar, they run for their lives to boats waiting at sea. Traffickers use the opportunity to exploit people desperate to escape genocide. The cover image of the book shows some of those Rohingya refugees who made it out of Myanmar successfully. That image comes from the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

In the time it took to put this volume together, the global migration crisis has only intensified. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that as of September 2019, there are more than 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, unquestionably the worst migration crisis on record. I hope that Emerging Threats to Human Rights will start a conversation about the human rights and human dignity of the world’s growing migrant population and serve to counteract a rising tide of xenophobia.

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