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Why the UK (and Europe) should offer sanctuary to more refugees

Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

In light of calls from faith leaders for the UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to offer sanctuary to 10,000 refugees each year it is worth exploring why this is not only moral, but absolutely necessary. The rights of refugees are enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocols (available here) of which the UK is a signatory. This Convention is considered the cornerstone of refugee protection. It sets out the definition of ‘refugee’ and outlines states’ obligations of protection (UNHCR). The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees broadened the scope of the Convention in an effort to make it more universal and to move away from its original Euro-centric focus. The Convention draws upon Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (UDHR, 1948).

These important documents were produced in the aftermath of two devastating world wars in which the world stated “never again”. The plight of refugees fleeing Nazism awoke the world to the need for states to respect shared humanity and to recognise that each has a duty not to turn their backs on those in desperate need. This call for solidarity and cooperation that transcends politics and borders should be viewed as a proud moment in UN history and encompasses all that the UN stands for.

The current situations for the majority of the world’s refugees, including those that remain in conflict zones and those in camps across Europe is one that starkly represents a failure to meet a number of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 2: zero hunger, Goal 4: quality education, Goal 6: clean water and sanitation, and perhaps most clearly Goal 3: good health and well-being. Thousands are trapped in inhospitable camps or detention centers where they have no access to facilities that meet basic needs. A significant number of those staying in such conditions are children and other vulnerable people who have already been through so much. Often refugee camps will have limited or no running water or electricity. People survive in tents which are not suitable for harsh Winters and brutal Summers. Overpopulation is a significant problem which leads to increasingly inhumane and unsustainable living conditions. Children in such camps are also deprived of proper, stable education. This lack of structure and routine can be highly detrimental to the emotional well-being of children, leading to feelings of isolation and a sense of being stuck in limbo. Whilst those within camps do their best to rebuild their lives, the conditions do not make it easy.

The mental health aspect of being stuck indefinitely in a refugee camp or detention center cannot be ignored. The perpetual state of impermanence has vastly detrimental effects on the mental well-being of those trapped in limbo with nowhere to call home and no support to re-build their lives in a sustainable and permanent way. WHO pinpoints long-term stress factors - detention, hostility and uncertainty - which can contribute to mental health concerns for refugees. All of these stress factors can be relieved, at least temporarily, by the offer of sanctuary. A recent policy briefing produced by the World Health Organisation also states that refugees are about ten times more likely than the age-matched general population to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without proper care, this can have extremely severe repercussions for the rest of a person’s life.

The moral obligation to offer sanctuary to an increased number of refugees is clearly in line with the values of the UN. The offer of sanctuary to 10,000 refugees each year is achievable and would indicate significant progress in the global effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Once sanctuary and stability are offered, people are then able continue living their lives.

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