Children look out at the sunset over the Bamarne IDP camp in northern Iraq. DFID UK/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)
One of the principal determinants of how many people will perish as a result of an atrocity crime is the capacity of the targeted civilian population to flee from immediate harm. The more a targeted group is able to find refuge from violence, the lower the number of direct victims is likely to be. But, as the plight of Syrians and Iraqis trying to reach Europe demonstrates only too well, flight increases exposure to other sources of harm.
It can also sometimes place civilians at greater risk of atrocities, such as when IDP/refugee camps become targets for attack as they have been in South Sudan and elsewhere. As such, international efforts to implement the global commitment to the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) must include the facilitation of safe flight from harm and the protection of populations once displaced. Safe passage and refugee protection are among the most significant and direct ways in which lives can be saved in the face of atrocity crimes.
The R2P principle was agreed at the 2005 World Summit, the largest ever gathering of heads of state and government. It was subsequently adopted as part of a UN General Assembly resolution and has since been reaffirmed by more than half a dozen resolutions of the UN Security Council. It maintains that all states have a responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; that the international community has a duty to encourage and assist states to meet their responsibility; and should take ‘timely and decisive’ action through the UN Charter to protect populations from these atrocity crimes.
Flight from danger
When atrocities are perpetrated, flight – leaving an area under threat to head for a second country, a safer region or a camp administered by international agencies – is one of the most common, and effective, forms of immediate self-protection. Decisions about flight are rarely arbitrary. People typically flee to where they believe they will be safe, either because of personal relationships or the promise of assistance from national authorities or humanitarian agencies.
Often, affected populations must flee several times in search of safety. Although flight in the face of imminent danger is a good means of physical protection in the short-term, as noted above those who flee are often left relatively unprotected in the longer-term and much more vulnerable to the threats associated with deprivation.
Most of the world’s displaced are deprived the essentials of life, namely shelter, food, medicine, education, community and a resource base for self-reliant livelihoods.
Mortality rates among the displaced are higher than among any other group, with the possible exception of those who stay behind to face the violence.
Indeed, mortality rates among the displaced are higher than among any other group, with the possible exception of those who stay behind to face the violence. Camps for refugees and internally displaced persons are often also subject to infiltration and attack by armed groups and attack by armed groups from the outside. Women and girls can also face particular protection challenges, including significant threats of sexual violence and exploitation.
And the responsibility to protect
The relationship between R2P, safe passage and the protection of those that flee atrocities is a fundamental one. It is for that simple reason that the secretary-general of the United Nations has repeatedly argued that full implementation of international refugee law and the guiding principles on internal displacement are among the key steps that states ought to take in order to fulfil their R2P.
In 2008, two of the world’s leading thinkers on refugee protection, Brian Barbour and UNHCR’s Brian Gorlick, argued, that “there may be no easier way for the international community to meet its responsibility to protect than by providing asylum and other international protection on adequate terms”. Primarily, this involves the full and unimpeded implementation of the 1951 Convention on the Protection of Refugees and subsequent 1967 Protocol through existing mechanisms, including UNHCR.
‘Safe passage’ and ‘asylum’ – terms not often associated with R2P – ought therefore to be key elements of the response to atrocity crimes.
There are a number of specific measures that could be taken to support safe flight and the protection of displaced populations and which ought to be understood as central to the implementation of R2P. These include:
• Ensuring that neighbouring states open their borders and make it as easy as possible for threatened people to seek asylum;
• Providing support to the receiving states to ensure that they are able to adequately house, shelter and protect refugees;
• Reducing the risks of movement (especially across water) and relieving the burden on receiving states by facilitating the movement of displaced people to third countries for temporary protection;
• Significantly expanding the availability of long-term protection and resettlement options to reduce the number of displaced people worldwide;
• Granting of asylum and protection to potential victims of atrocity crimes.
Beyond these specific measures, it is vital to ensure that provision for safe flight and the protection of displaced populations is integral to any comprehensive response to atrocity crimes and the wider conversation about international responsibilities stemming from R2P. After all, this is one of the most direct ways in which lives can be saved.
In the longer term, R2P needs to generate fresh thinking about how safe flight might be facilitated and the types of action required in order to strengthen the international institutions needed to support safe flight and protection. For now, though, it is imperative that states and societies understand how important safe flight is to the fulfilment of R2P. It is a requirement, not an added extra and needs to be treated as such and given urgent priority going forward.