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Non-refoulement, a major right in international refugee law for 72 years, is currently facing threats in Bangladesh and Turkey. Opponents of refugees in these countries and those seeking political gains are exploiting the vulnerability of refugees, jeopardizing their right to non-refoulement. Non-refoulement, intended to stop countries from returning individuals to dangerous conditions that would violate human rights, has been a longstanding customary practice in international relations.

History of Safety From Refoulement Back to Danger

In the mid-19th century, refugee law and non-refoulement gained relevance due to concerns over armies not following international treaties on wartime conduct during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. As more conflicts began increasingly affecting civilians, more civilians fled to other countries to escape violence. As such, there was much discussion in international organizations on how foreign countries should treat refugees and what rights they had. With previous attacks on civilians in mind, non-refoulement emerged as a customary right to ensure better treatment of civilians. 

After World War II, the United Nations established the “1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”  to provide protections for people recognized as having protected status under international law. However, many refugees today who are escaping domestic conflicts in their home countries are not recognized as refugees and face challenges in obtaining protection.

Current Support of Non-Refoulement

Current international recognition of non-refoulement is complicated as many refugees have access to information and online resources in addition to traditional support from families and communities about what possible protection they could receive in other countries if they are fleeing violence. However, some refugees seeking refuge in more distant countries face increased politicization of their status and hostility upon arrival. Coast guards and border police force many refugees back without an opportunity to apply for asylum if they do not have the appropriate documentation or compelling story. This has received criticism from international and watchdog organizations. Threatening non-refoulement rights significantly alters a refugee experience, as it denies an established right to escape violence.

The practice of non-refoulement in current refugee migrations to safety has been met with resistance and stalling tactics to limit the number of refugees accepted. Many countries impose caps on refugee admissions, increasing the chances of deportation for those without proper status in the country. For example, many countries allow a limited number on how many refugees may be accepted. This puts a strain on the countries adjacent to conflict and disaster that have to take in many more refugees without little respite except in limited financial aid.  

For example, at the U.S.-Mexican border, many asylum seekers are unable to enter the U.S. because the U.S. considers Mexico a safe country. As such, the U.S. has sent refugees back to Mexico to apply for US asylum, which puts them at risk of violence and a lack of resources to complete their asylum application. This has led to some Mexican states becoming new centres for refugees and migrants seeking status or a way across the border. This issue of certain countries experiencing the largest amounts of refugees has created unsafe conditions for the refugees and limited positive legal recognition, making the topic of returning refugees to their home country a controversial political matter.

Vulnerable Situations, Political Rewards

Bangladesh is currently facing this challenging situation as it has become a refuge for “half a millionRohingya who escaped military violence in Myanmar. The Rohingya sought safety in camps in Bangladesh, but the poor international recognition of the situation has led to dire conditions of limited food and a lack of security for the Rohingya there. Many Bangladeshis are also becoming less supportive as some refugees have been in the camps for long periods of time. Given the ongoing civil war in Myanmar, there is little guarantee of safety or stability for these refugees.  

Despite this, the Bangladeshi government and Myanmar military have had discussions on the refoulement of refugees back to Myanmar, with the inclusion of inspections of safety by Rohingya delegates but it lacked clear guarantees of safety and well-being. However, the Burmese military is facing widespread criticism for its human rights abuses. Cooperation with such governments might assist in the international sphere but will harm the refugees’ safety in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. 

In Turkey, Syrians have been at risk of deportation back to Syria at a time when most of the country remains unsafe for return. However, the most recent election in Turkey saw the two main candidates campaigning for returning refugees to Syria. Politicians use refugee crises for political gain as citizens react to the costs of hosting refugees for many years in recent elections. The normalization of the discussion around access to refugees and human rights, in general, has shown the erosion of refugee protections for those fleeing persecution and violence. 

In addition, both Bangladesh and Turkey have been experiencing environmental disasters recently along with poor economic improvement. The combination of these factors has stressed both the state and the people into considering alternatives to the current status quo of refugee rights, such as the repatriation of refugees to their home country. In these instances, the global community and Western countries in particular need to pick up support in accepting more refugees so refugees and their host countries are not put into such strained situations.  

Discourse and Reactions From Refugees

In Bangladesh, the status of refugees has become even worse due to the cuts in food aid, which have threatened hunger in refugee camps. Between this and the initial attempts to deport Rohingyas back to Myanmar, many do not feel they have any better hope in the camps compared to staying in Myanmar or fleeing to another country without the possibility of refugee status. Leaving an initial safe country (Bangladesh) makes asylum-seekers ineligible for refugee status under international law. The aim of this is to keep refugees close to their home country in neighboring countries in the hopes there would be more likelihood they could return if conditions allowed. 

In the cases of Turkey and Bangladesh, the lack of support and stability for both host countries and the refugees themselves presents a greater risk of persecution and trafficking of refugees with little documentation. With these countries’ governments beginning to voice support for the deportation of refugees, even those who are able to make it to camps are not safe from being returned to the danger they escaped.

Concluding on the Risk of Dilution of Non-Refoulement Rights

Non-refoulement is an important international convention that has provided a foundation for the protection of refugees fleeing danger. With more migrants and refugees moving for better opportunities or fleeing danger, global opinions on governments accepting more refugees have not increased, matching the rise of events that make people flee their homes. As seen in Bangladesh and Turkey, refugees have become pawns in political games, making their situation more precarious. The politicization of refugees leads to new and real risks for them, whether they are in initially safe countries or considering new places for safety, as the possibility of being sent back home to danger looms over them.

Edited by Anthony Hablak

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...