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Access to foundational human rights should be non-negotiable: Reflections from the Asia Pacific Summit of Refugees 2024

Written by Bahati Kanyamanza, IRAP’s Global Partnerships Director.

Last month, I was grateful to attend the Asia Pacific Summit of Refugees 2024 in Malaysia on behalf of IRAP, convened by the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees. My role during the summit was simple: to listen and network with participants and find potential areas for collaboration between IRAP and other organizations present at the summit. However, as a former refugee, the summit reflected some of the key challenges I also endured for over 20 years:

1. Access to foundational human rights

Throughout the summit, refugees from different countries talked about the lack of access to education, healthcare, work rights, and legal services. The challenges refugees continue to face globally, including the Asia Pacific region, are heartbreaking, but in some countries, refugees can’t even speak openly about their own challenges and share solutions.

How can we address the problems refugees face when they can’t even speak about them and be part of the solution? Denying refugees the right to livelihood and health is like telling them to starve and die. Access to foundational human rights for refugees should be non-negotiable.

2. Work rights challenges

Work rights in particular continue to be a major challenge. In some countries, refugees are not allowed to register a business or even work. If someone isn’t allowed to work or start a business, how can they survive? During the summit, I met Dr. Hassan, a medical doctor trained in his native country, who has made every effort to practice medicine in Malaysia in vain and has had to resort to online survival jobs to provide for his family. Dr. Hassan’s story is one of a million. In a country grappling with a shortage of health workers, skilled professionals like Dr. Hassan would fill the gap. Refugees with expertise in their respective fields should have the opportunity to work and contribute to their communities.

Bahati Kanyamanza with Dr. Hassan.
3. Funding Refugee-Led Organizations (RLOs)

Regardless of the recognition of the important role that RLOs continue to play to address their community challenges, funding to refugee-led initiatives continues to be a key  challenge facing the sector, and this was confirmed by every organization I spoke to.  

For example, I also met Mr. Isaac, a South Sudanese refugee who has forged a partnership with Malaysian universities to recruit students from East Africa. As he told me about his venture, vision and plans to grow his business, his story captivated me. Like Dr. Hassan, he is not just a refugee, he is a resource and is creating opportunities that can benefit anyone in his host country, refugee or not. This is why IRAP has committed part of its funding to share general support grants with RLO partners, which they can use to decide important priorities for their organizations. RLOs are rooted in their refugee community and understand what works and does not work best for their communities.

4. Refugees forever? – Protracted displacement

At the summit, I met refugees who have been refugees for 30 years with no hope for local integration, resettlement to a third country, or returning to their home countries. I also spoke to youth who were born in the host countries but can’t become citizens of the only country they know because policies do not permit them to do so. At the same time, they are foreign to their countries of origin – countries they have never stepped foot in. Their descriptions of their daily challenges, trauma, and legal status are overwhelming. These are innocent children who are born on the move; why should they be forced to live and die with no rights?

5. HOPE! HOPE! HOPE! – The launch of an international, independent working group

But there is hope! I was a refugee for about 25 years and I’m sometimes asked how I managed to navigate and survive all the challenges that came with my refugee status. Many times I do not have a clear answer to such questions. Speaking to refugees at the summit, I saw hope in their faces and their conversations conveyed both resilience and humility. The longer refugees continue to suffer, the more we accept our fate and the realities of our lives, but our positivity rises amidst our struggles, even when we are not sure about what our tomorrow holds. This unwavering hope was evident in every refugee I met at the summit.

Bahati Kanyamanza meeting with refugee leaders.

During the summit, I joined colleagues to launch a new independent, international working group of humanitarians, international lawyers, refugee experts and academics. The goal is to address the refugee participation gap in international law and policy and work towards developing an independent declaration affirming the right of refugees to actively participate in decisions affecting their lives. To further increase our commitment to meaningful refugee participation, IRAP is joining the working group as an institutional supporter.

Bahati Kanyamanza speaking at the launch of the international independent working group.

In conclusion, if refugee issues are to be addressed, there is a need for an overhaul of the global refugee regime. A better system that gives refugees foundational human rights like any other human being is urgently needed – a system that is inclusive of those affected by the issues that the current system itself created and continues to perpetuate is overdue. It is time to amplify the voices of refugees and be serious about allowing their engagement in solving the issues that their own communities face. There is a need to invest in refugee-led initiatives so that refugees are part of the solution to their own problems.

Bahati Kanyamanza is the Global Partnerships Director at IRAP.