About half of all refugees today live in internment camps (USCRI 2009) or in locked or guarded camps typically surrounded by fences, often topped by barbed wire. Inhabitants are prohibited from electing to leave. Despite international legal guarantees of freedom of movement (Refugee Convention 1951; ICCPR 1966), many refugees are deprived of such freedom on the basis of national laws.
Internment in refugee camps leads to other human rights violations. For example, refugee children in camps may be unable to access adequate education and other services and opportunities, even though the right to an education is guaranteed to all children under the almost universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC 1989), among other instruments.
One such instrument is the education initiative, COBURWAS International Youth Organisation to Transform Africa (CIYOTA); the name of the youth organization is an acronym for the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, and Sudan (CO-BU-RWA-S). The Lockheed, Andrews & Newman (LAN) education initiative was launched by several refugee children in the Kyangwali camp in Uganda; CIYOTA began when its founders were dissatisfied with the secondary education available to them. Through informal work, they raised funds to allow some of their members to attend secondary school in a village outside the camp (CIYOTA 2015). Often left out of CIYOTA’s founding story, however, is the other barrier—aside from school fees—that its members faced. Leaving the camp to attend an outside school was illegal under Uganda’s laws at the time. CIYOTA’s initial secondary students had to sneak out of the camp in order to receive what they considered an adequate education (Munyambanza CGIU 2013).
Physical segregation of refugees in camps, and the possibility of arrest for refugees caught outside camps, are obvious barriers to local integration as a durable solution. Even for refugees who are not required by law to live in camps, however, other forms of exclusion from the social, economic, and civic life of their host communities have a similar impact.
Most refugee children not confined in camps spend their childhood in major cities in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Many do not attend local schools for a variety of reasons. The Asylum Access organization has seen situations in which local laws prohibit refugees’ access to education; refugee parents are afraid of arrest, detention, and/or deportation if they attract the attention of the authorities; or schools refuse to enroll children without birth certificates that are frequently left behind when a family flees, become lost or stolen in transit, or are unavailable to children born to refugee parents in a host country—these are some among other situations. Similar barriers prevent refugee children in urban areas from accessing medical care and other state services.
Additionally, because many host countries prohibit refugees from working (Asylum Access 2014), refugee parents frequently cannot afford the cost of education and/or medical care for their children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child’s exhorts that “States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children” (CRC 1989). Despite this declaration, the violation of refugee parents’ work-related rights means many children are prevented from enjoying their rights to free, compulsory education and social security benefits, including social insurance (CRC 1989).
Finally, refugee children in urban areas may be at risk of arrest and detention. Thailand, for example, regularly detains refugees for extended periods in violation of international law (CCPR/C/GC/35: 18). Children are detained along with adults. Until mid-2015, release was granted only after posting bail at a cost out of reach for many refugees. Thai immigration authorities recently agreed to release children without requiring posting of cash bail, although their parents (and all other adults) still must post bail.
One of Asylum Access’s refugee clients, a young woman whose pseudonym is Aisha, arrived in Thailand at age 17 when her family fled Sri Lanka after years of persecution by the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan rebel group. Local integration was never an option. For 18 months, the family lived largely in hiding. Although in theory Thai law allows refugee children to attend local schools, the prevalence of arrest and detention of refugees deterred the family from sending Aisha and her brothers—the youngest was 12—to Thai schools. Aisha’s parents could not legally work under Thailand’s domestic laws, even though the country acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1999 with no reservations.
After that first year and a half, the family’s luck ran out: Aisha, her parents, and three brothers were arrested and taken to an immigration detention center outside central Bangkok. She and her mother were separated from her father and brothers. After 16 months, the family was released after posting bail, only to face detention again two years later when their bail expired. With no access to formal education, Aisha was unable to finish high school but, undeterred, she took informal classes, worked odd jobs, and volunteered as a Tamil-English interpreter for other refugees.
Aisha and her family approached Asylum Access for help during their second stint in detention when they had lost hope that the UN refugee agency would resettle them from Thailand to another country. Although the family had been in Thailand for more than three years, the Thailand office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had not referred Aisha’s family’s case to the embassies of any of the several countries that accept refugees for resettlement. Still in danger if they went home, unable to integrate locally as a result of Thailand’s hostile policies, and knowing of no way to access resettlement without a UNHCR referral, Aisha and her family believed no durable solution was within reach.
Asylum Access worked closely with the family to apply directly to several embassies, seeking resettlement. Many embassies will accept only a small number of direct applications for resettlement, preferring to receive referrals from the UNHCR. In addition, the family faced other barriers. They were now being detained three hours from central Bangkok, so Asylum Access had to persuade embassy officials to undertake significant travel simply to interview the family as a prerequisite to considering their resettlement request. Eventually, however, Aisha and her family succeeded in securing a resettlement. At the time of this writing, she and her brothers are preparing to leave for a new country with their parents—one where they will be able to attend school, work, access healthcare and social services, and walk down the street without fear of arrest simply because they are refugees.
The detention of refugee children is a direct violation of the UNHCR’s detention guidelines (UNHCR 2012, 9.2) and results in follow-on rights violations such as lack of access to education and family. Additionally, the extended detention of refugee children is contrary to the guarantee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that “State Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being” (CRC 1989, 3.2). Thailand’s new policy permitting the release of children without the posting of cash bail is one small stride towards respecting the international human rights of children; however, it does not yet rise to the level of compliance with international norms.