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Decoupling Rights from Permanence

Across the previous examples, a common thread is pragmatism: A focus on refugees’ human rights rather than on the permanence or durability of their stays. This is in keeping with the principles of international refugee law, which requires honoring rights regardless of a refugee’s choices about durable solutions or the political viability of any one of those solutions.

It is also a strategy that has proven successful in a practical sense: Asylum Access has learned that the best way to secure the rights necessary for local integration is to decouple the concept of integration as a durable solution from the implementation of rights. Experience suggests that the pragmatic approach—focusing on policies that address current realities without raising the question of permanence—brings refugee children and adults closer to actual integration. In other words, not talking about local integration has, paradoxically, allowed Asylum Access to secure changes that make local integration more possible.

Looking towards the future, I see refugee children as key to connecting human rights improvements with permanent local integration. Refugee children occupy a unique role among any refugee population. Unlike their parents, they may not remember their homeland, or they may find their memories of their erstwhile home fade more quickly than do the memories of the adults around them. Children absorb language, manners, and other cultural norms more quickly than adults, becoming “fluent” in the identity of their host country and achieving a de facto integration faster than their parents.

Moreover, because children born to refugees are frequently considered refugees themselves, they may never have lived in their so-called “home” country. These children have spent their entire existence in their host state, thus may feel, and act, like citizens rather than migrants. This in turn can facilitate social acceptance by de jure citizens, thus make integration policies more politically palatable for host countries.

Finally, because children have special rights as children, they may have a convincing legal claim to integration. The historically preferred durable solution, repatriation, becomes more difficult as children grow into adulthood outside their country of nationality or of their parents’ nationality. In many cases, the durable solution best suited to a refugee child’s particular circumstances—that is, the durable solution in his or her best interest, to borrow from international legal frameworks addressing children (see CRC 1989)—is local integration, particularly when such integration is already a de facto reality. These factors may both encourage refugee children to choose local integration and dispose refugee-hosting countries to accept such integration more readily.

Nevertheless, there remain a few caveats. First, Asylum Access is only a decade old. The experiences are suggestive but not indisputable. It is possible that insisting that host governments accept permanent local integration ultimately would achieve full rights for refugees faster than a pragmatic, piecemeal approach; however, based on experience with host government engagement to date, it is highly unlikely.

More important, Asylum Access’s clients have indicated that securing the rights that help them address their immediate needs and fears— freedom from detention, freedom of movement, access to education and employment opportunities, and protection instead of victimization from the justice system—are more important than a promise of permanent integration. After all, refugees more than any others have learned that the promise of a permanent home can be illusory no matter how stable it seems.

What can be said with certainty is that closing the gap between rights on paper and rights in practice will allow exponentially more refugee children to grow up able to meet their own needs, to make choices about their own lives, and to enjoy a stable and fulfilling childhood in a new country. Whether they call this new country “home,” or whether they consider themselves permanently integrated, ultimately may be less important than the durability of an environment that allows them a healthy, happy childhood.

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