Thursday, March 31, 2011

Renewing Dialectics of Prevention in Displacement

M. Peter Jeyaprakash
[former Voluntary Repatriation Specialist UNHCR, Chennai. At present he is working as Individual Contractor for UNHCR, Chennai]

“I have good reason to believe that somewhere on my planet there is an old rat. I hear him in the night. You can judge this old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. Thus his life will depend on your justice. But you will pardon him on each occasion; for he must be treated thriftily. He is the only one we have”.

- The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint – Exupery.

For ages refugees have been kept in the situation like that of the old rat. We have condemned him from time to time and pardoned him on each occasion. And we have given him our deepest consideration that “he is the only one we have”. It is a status quo situation kept alive by denying ourselves the need for prevention mechanism. Migration and displacement has not been a stranger to the concept of prevention. As a matter of fact, it was kept in a limbo like situation all the time since it was introduced into the domain of migration and displacement.

The Rise and Fall of the Concept of Prevention in Displacement Dialectics

The concept of prevention in displacement dialectics was initially focused by J. Hope Simpson in a survey titled The Refugee Problem in the year 1939. He states that “prevention is better than cure and international action must be directed to prevent the emergence of new refugee movements by easing those tensions, political and economic which threaten to produce unplanned migration movements”. And after a long time the UN appointed study group in a Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on International Co-operation to Avert New Flows of Refugees (Note by the Secretary-General, A/41/324, 13 May 1986) brought out the close link between human rights violations and refugee problem in the context of prevention.

And after a long silence, and in an effort to dispel any confusion that could arise out of interests on prevention, UNHCR in a report in 1999 clarified that “Preventive action consists of initiatives which have the effect of averting the occurrence and recurrence of those conditions which force people to leave their usual place of residence. The notion of prevention should never be confused with efforts to obstruct the flight of threatened populations, to deter the departure of people who intend to seek refuge elsewhere or to undermine the institution of asylum”.

The concept, as applied to refugees, makes its appearance again in a UNHCR document in 2001, when one of the objectives of the Agenda for Protection was formulated as “addressing the root causes of refugee movements”. And in the year 2010 a UNHCR research paper fixes the concept of prevention in refugee situations as an inconsistency. The paper brings out only the conceptual fragility of the idea of prevention and examines the internal inconsistencies of the concept. At best it was a willful undermining of the concept of prevention in displacement dialectics.

Thus in the course of time we find that the well intended introduction of the concept of prevention in displacement dialectics in the year 1939 is reduced to an impractical idea in the year 2010.

The Need for Prevention Strategy

However, we find that the problem of migration and displacement has never shown any sign of decline. It has become a major cause for worry among international humanitarian agencies. UNHCR reports that the number of forcibly displaced rises to 43.3 million last year, the highest level since mid-1990s. It also states that the year 2009 has been the worst for voluntary repatriation. The rise in the refugee trend and a worst voluntary repatriation scenario speak loud and clear the need and the importance of prevention policies.

We cannot deny the need for including prevention concerns in displacement dialectics because of the fact that each and every reality has an assignable cause. This causal knowledge leads to prevention.

Logic Implications and Uniformity of Relations towards Prevention

Let me give you some examples. Some years ago I worked for the school drop-outs in the rural areas of Northern Tamil Nadu. These children go with their parents to Chennai to work as house maids and return as confused individuals. They are confused and lost in their heart and mind. You can see the effect of displacement through their borrowed artificial ways of interacting with their own kind as if they are different from them. It is a kind of glistening garb of self-alienation which they are reluctant to shed. Originality takes the backstage so much so that their interaction has a nostalgic sense of hatred for their own kind in their native place.

And just as I was making up my mind that migration and displacement towards an urban area alienates people there was a surprise waiting for me. One of the villages I was working on through PRA methods to enhance the rural women was undergoing a worst situation as a result of economic migration. Most of the men in the village go and stay in Chennai for making an earning in the famous ‘Koyambedu’ vegetable market and return once in a week or month. During their absence some of the miscreants in the village gradually lured the women into road side prostitution with the lorry drivers. This went on until the peek of the AIDS/ HIV campaigns and it waned. In these examples we find that each problem becomes the cause of the other.

We in turn helplessly shift the responsibility on big players in the field like UNHCR to do something about it. UNHCR works at the penultimate end of the problem and in India it merely makes a ghost presence. UNHCR is handicapped by the fact that India is a non-signatory of the 1951 convention. India is keeping it that way. Unaware of this fact many Sri Lankan refugees approach UNHCR in India as soon as they landed with the hope of getting some help from the Office and always returned with a broken heart which got trampled upon by those who were not aware of the refugee rights. They suffered doubly.

Tragic Optimism

These are examples of dominos effect of not going through a causal investigation which, if pursued diligently, would give rise to prevention strategies. Incidents in the Arab world and the tsunami in Japan have spewed out more displacement problems. Remember the little Dutch boy who could not hold off the sea water by plugging the hole on the wall? And I would say that we have come to a saturation point with regard to displacement problem.

Yes, we have learnt a lot from the refugee situations and many theoretical outbursts have streamlined the problem into a cohesive knowledge bank (causal knowledge). Alternately, exhaustive didactic tricks too played havoc with the lives of the migrants and the displaced. So far we have not figured out a way to strike at the root cause of the problem. Amidst this swampy feeling there is a sense of tragic optimism that we have a way of life that also says enough is enough and that we got to put a stop to something recurring and making a fool of us. After all in the end the old rat has to die and stop making noise in the night.

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