The United Nations’ theme for this year’s World Refugee Day, celebrated on 20thJune, is #StepWithRefugees – Take A Step on World Refugee Day. The day encourages supporters around the world to ‘walk, run and cycle the distance refugees cover each year to reach safety’. Asylum Insights reports that as of the end of 2017, globally 3.1 million asylum seekers were awaiting outcomes on their application for refugee status. Around the world, reports of human rights abuses of asylum seekers detained are common place, including for example in the United States, Australia, Italy, Lebanon and Kenya. Refugee journalists, as well as journalists operating externally of centres, often come under the scrutiny and suppression of operative authorities when attempting to report on such human rights violations, and are afforded little protection by international refugee law, namely the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Mandate.
In late 2018, Columbia Journalism Review published an article on Kanere, an independent news magazine produced by journalists operating in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, which in the past has reported on robberies, alleged corruption among NGO staff and police, as well as suspicious deaths in the camp. Current Editor, Tolossa Asrat, says “Harassment and abuse are common for Kanere staff”, whilst pointing out several journalists have stopped working due to threats or harassment. US academic, Bethany Ojalehto, who helped establish Kanere stated, “UNHCR personnel were extremely upset that we were publishing articles about events in the camp that were available to an international audience without giving UNHCR the final say in what made it to the blog… Perhaps their goal was to ensure accuracy, but it felt more like censorship”.
Simultaneously, journalists attempting to report on refugee human rights conditions externally of centres often come up against guidelines that severely restrict freedom of press. Director of Human Rights Watch, Australia, Elaine Pearson, stated in an Al Jazeera article that, “The Australian government has tried very hard to shape the narrative about what is happening on Manus and Nauru, and it’s done so very effectively, because it’s so hard for journalists to be able to go there and to tell the stories of what is happening”. Intending to incite an investigation into Grammichele Sprar Centre, La Repubblica journalist, Alessandro Puglia, published interviews with migrants presenting inhumane treatment at the hands of authorities, only to find himself being prosecuted for defamation by Italian judicial authorities.
While there is no doubt the UNHCR is effective in contributing to policies that work to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers- for example UNHCR pressure was instrumental in securing the medevac law in Australia- there are no provisions in its mandate that protect journalists reporting on refugee human rights from consequential persecution at the hands of operative authorities. The transparency of conditions, yielded by greater freedom of press, are essential to ensure refugees are afforded their human rights while awaiting asylum application outcomes. Greater media transparency will strengthen international organizations’ and civil society’s ability to hold those authorities responsible for the operation of detention facilities accountable when conditions within detention camps are not in compliance with meeting basic human rights standards.
As the world is now witnessing the highest levels of global displacement on record it is crucial, now more than ever, that attention is focused on this issue as it begins to affect more and more people. In its partnership with governments to ‘support safe and respectful asylum policies, and negotiate refugee camp locations and security’, the UNHCR must include within its Mandate a component specific to the protection of journalists working to advocate for the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Included also must be legally binding provisions for governments to follow that secure media access to immigration detention centres, as well as enforceable repercussions if this access is denied. On this year’s World Refugee Day, taking a step towards greater transparency and freedom of press surrounding immigration detention centres would greatly benefit refugees.
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