By Elizabeth Andersen
Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative
International Refugee Day—June 20—is typically marked by a relatively small community of UN officials and refugee activists preoccupied with the plight of people forced from their homes around the world. But this year, with record displacements putting intense pressure on sheltering states, the UN’s annual report on refugees, The State of the World’s Refugees, has made front pages the world over. A record 55 million people are under the protection of the UN’s refugee agency, and while attention is focused on boatloads of migrants arriving on Europe’s shores, that is just the most visible tip of the iceberg. The migration crisis demands rule of law responses—in both source and receiving states.
Paul Simonett, ABA ROLI country director in Turkey, participated in a meeting for representatives of non-governmental organizations working to assist Syrian refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In countries to which refugees are fleeing, the humanitarian response must include not only food and shelter but also legal aid, enabling the displaced to understand and obtain their rights to education, health care and protection against return to persecution. In the United States, the American Bar Association, through its Commission on Unaccompanied Children and ProBar program, is providing just this kind of legal assistance to migrants fleeing lawlessness and violence in Central America and Mexico. A recent study showed that 73% of children represented by counsel are successful in U.S. immigration courts, compared to just 15% of those who are unrepresented. Legal counsel clearly matters in realizing rights. In Turkey, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is working with local bar associations to provide similar assistance to Syrian refugees, ensuring that the refugees understand their rights and have access to essential services. Over the past four years, more than 1.7 million Syrians have flooded Turkey.
As important as these initiatives are to address the immediate needs of displaced people, they are a short-term band-aid that won’t ultimately stem the flow. For that, measures to address the root causes—many of them rule of law gaps—are essential. This is at the heart of the work that ABA ROLI does in many of the leading refugee source countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where conflict and violence have displaced 3.2 million and 800,000 people, respectively, ABA ROLI efforts supporting accountability for violence against women seek to reestablish a rule of law culture that can facilitate return. And in Central America, we are working with judges, prosecutors, and investigators to strengthen law enforcement responses to the murderous gang violence that has forced tens of thousands from their homes. You can read related stories here and here.
Indeed, in one way or another, nearly all of ABA ROLI’s work aims to respond to or avoid displacement: to create environments in which rights are respected, security is guaranteed and economic opportunity flourishes so that people are not forced to make impossible decisions, to risk their lives in rickety boats or send their children alone across the desert. I hope that as the immediate crisis abates and media attention shifts to other topics, as it inevitably will, we can nonetheless maintain an international consensus around the importance of rule of law development as the essential long-term response to displacement.