Making information accessible – an essential precondition for effective refugee protection?

Human Rights Day 2014

On Human Rights Day 2014, Maurice Wren, Chief Executive at The Refugee Council, gives his views on the importance of information literacy as a tool to empower refugees.

Enabling people who are caught up in the maelstrom of exile to access online information resources has the potential to transform their lives.

Four out of five refugees seek safety in countries adjacent to those from which they have fled, but which are usually poorly equipped to cope with refugee flows. Giving them reliable access to online information better equips them to deal with the provisionality of life in refugee camps. 

For those who undertakewhat are usually protracted and hazardous journeys in search of safety in the developed world, enabling online access is an effective way of tackling the isolation, the exclusion and the institutionalised antipathy they face in countries like the UK that are increasingly reluctant to discharge even the letter of their refugee protection obligations. 

Yet, despite the best efforts of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and others to harness information technology as an effective tool for enhancing the sustainability of their humanitarian efforts, the reality is that scope for opening up the online world of information to refugees remains limited at best. 

The consistent failure of the global community to provide the resources needed to fulfil our international humanitarian obligations means that this potential remains unexplored and those whose exclusion and essential vulnerability could be mitigated in so many ways though assured online access are denied what has become a way of life for the rest of us.

Life in the Camps

For people in refugee camps around the world, the option of returning to their home countries to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives is often non-existent, yet the prospects for integration into the host societies in the countries where they find themselves are negligible too.

Educational provision is likely to be haphazard, health services rudimentary, personal safety, particularly for women and girls, constantly at risk, and obtaining the basic necessities of lifeis a daily struggle. Their world is a provisional one, in which their lives and futures are on hold, indefinitely.

For them, online access offers connections to a world of knowledge and information that offers the chance to study, to trace lost relatives, to keep abreast of what’s happening at home, to look beyondlife in a camp and unlock the possibility of a future.

All the available evidence, limited though it is, points to the positive impacts that flow from facilitating information literacy, even in the most challenging of refugee locations.  

Life in the UK

For those who make it to the UK in search of safety, the problems they face are different, but no less isolating. The UK can be a lonely and unwelcoming place, both during the often lengthy time during which their asylum claims are decided, and, if granted leave to stay in the UK, when they take on the challenge of starting a new life from scratch. Our asylum system is fixated on gatekeeping and is permeated at all levels by a forbidding culture of disbelief. 

The decision making process is fiercely adversarial and inadequately mediated by a legal aid system increasingly compromised by cuts and restrictions. For those who obtain refugee status, they are faced by an institutional disregard for their welfare, just at the time when investing in their integration and well-being would bring benefits for us all.

In practical terms, having ready access to online information can enable someone seeking asylum to secure a legal representative, to research and gather the evidence vital to the corroboration of their asylum claims, to challenge their detention by applying for bail, or to empower them, literally, to become an active participant in the advocacy of their claim for protection. 

For those granted leave to stay in the UK, they can look for work or explore the chance to study, they can take re-establish contacts with families and exercise their rights to family reunification, and they can use information technology to help with making the social contacts that better equip them to tackle the emotional dislocation that is so common to the refugee experience. 

Frustratingly, though, our whole system is geared to the systematic impoverishment of asylum seekers and refugees, with scant thought and minimal resources devoted to providing anything more than what is absolutely necessary for basic existence. The possibility that we might treat refugees as valuable human assets seems as remote and unlikely today as it has ever been.   

Humanising refugee protection

Denying refugees the opportunity to transcend their ‘victim’ status, to be their own best advocates, and to rebuild active and engaged lives, is to limit our humanitarian response to their plight to meeting only their most basic physical needs.

We must humanise the way we provide refugee protection and one vital way of doing that is to give refugees access to the tools that will enable them to live a full life of the mind. 

Clearly, that’s a difficult call in a world increasingly incapable of doing the right thing for fear of being seen to be soft or weak on immigration, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge, particularly if we are able to galvanise mainstream civil society and mobilise the many compassionate, empathetic and influential voices that do not yet see the plight of refugees as their cause. 

One way that non-refugee organisations can register their support for a fair asylum system that treats all applicants with dignity and respect, is to endorse the five key principles of the recently formed Sanctuary Movement by singing up to the Birmingham Declaration

Human Rights Day is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that if we leave the defence of the UK’s proud record on refugee protection to asylum and refugee advocates alone, the place of safety we provide will never be more than one dimensional. Encouraging professionals in the world of information access to demand that the benefits of information literacy are on offer to all refugees is an excellent way to challenge a status quo that diminishes us all. 

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About Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day has been held annually on 10 December since 1950 to celebrate the UN General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Image source: "Human Rights Day" by cilipmarketing, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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