Fifty St. Louis-area high school students dived into the international refugee crisis yesterday and created something that, apparently, no one has previously considered: a Bill of Rights for refugees, and an accompanying Bill of Rights for host countries.
The students, from 17 local high schools, had previously selected countries to represent, as delegates to a Model UN program run by Civitas, a St. Louis-based non-profit that promotes active citizenship for teenagers. Participants signed up for this exercise not to win trophies or to get extra credit for a class assignment, but because, they attested at the end of the session, they are genuinely interested in world issues and want to be part of the solution. You know a 16-year-old is taking this seriously when he/she shows up at 8:30 am on a Saturday to take on the challenge.
The brainstorming session resulted in two documents that address serious—and sometimes conflicting—issues surrounding the plight of the millions of refugees fleeing war, persecution and ecological disasters, and the impact their mass migration is having on the countries taking them in.
The issues are thorny, to say the least: Do countries have the right to refuse entry to refugees? Are there legitimate reasons to reject refugees—assimilation issues, pressure on the host country’s economy, danger to the refugees themselves? As to refugees, do they have the right to demand entry into any country? Do they have a right to safe passage? Should children separated from their parents get special treatment? Do refugees have the right to expect financial support?
You don’t get discussions like these on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. Even a casual observer of Saturday morning’s proceedings could see that participants were predominantly using smart-phones not to engage in frivolous conversations, but actually to research refugee issues and their countries’ engagement in the crisis.
The thinking, questioning and role-playing were impressive. The delegate from Russia played his Putin-esque role to perfection. The delegate from Saudi Arabia explained her country’s view of refugees as not “refugees,” but rather “Arab brothers and sisters in distress.” Delegates working on the Refugees’ Bill of Rights were careful to try to balance the needs of refugees with the pressures they were creating on host countries. Some delegates whose countries are on the receiving end of the refugee tsunami reversed roles and took on the other side of the equation, working on the Refugees’ Bill of Rights—and vice versa. There was a pervasive awareness that—even if your country was not a current source of refugees or one of the major hosts of refugees today—every nation is just one war, one economic or political upheaval, or one natural disaster away from being the next epicenter of a refugee crisis.
The overall challenge was to draft bills of rights modeled—in form and language -– on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], a foundational document of the United Nations. The UDHR sets out essential principles of human rights — but does not create programs to promote them or methods to enforce them. Staying focused on the high-level thinking of principles, not programs, was part of the challenge. So, while students who attend conventional Model UN sessions often focus on the nitty-gritty of, for example, how many teachers are needed in a poorly educated country, or how to pay doctors in places experiencing epidemics, yesterday’s delegates had to filter out the how-to’s and focus, instead, on the why’s.
The documents they developed – shown below—are just a start, a work-in-progress. Even after they presented their ideas to the full group, each task force faced tough questions, many suggestions for refinements, and the need to compromise to get their proposal passed, even in the preliminary form seen here. [Neither passed unanimously – a sign that critical thinking continued even during voting.]
These students had three hours to tackle this issue. We need to remember how long it took when, in 1945, a United Nations task force, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to develop the UDHR — nearly two years.
You might look at these students’ first attempts at a Refugee’s Bill of Rights and a Host Countries’ Bill of Rights and judge them as simplistic, naïve, incomplete and impractical. You might point out the omissions, and the many areas that still need to be addressed. You might notice that the two Bills of Rights, in fact, conflict with one another and could be deemed incompatible. But while the product you’ll see below is a worthy effort, the process by which it came into being is even more significant. What’s behind the words is what really counts here: An earnest effort to look at the refugee crisis from 30,000 feet, to apply critical thinking and facts to a world emergency, and to collaborate to craft principles to guide the world toward more humane and possibly more reasoned approaches to these kinds of situations. Watching these students work — staying so focused, working so collaboratively, and thinking so analytically and creatively — is a reason for hope in a world where hope, civility and collaboration are becoming endangered commodities.
Here’s what they created. Imagine what could be done with more time, equal intensity and focus, and adults as committed and caring as these students
Host Countries’ Bill of Rights
Host countries have the right to refuse to accept refugees.
With review by the United Nations, host countries can refuse to accept refugees based on
- Ethnic assimilation Issues
- Cultural Assimilation Issues
- Safety Issues
- Population/Support Issues
- Or if admitting refugees would be harmful to the refugees themselves
Host countries have the right to receive funding from the UN if they accept refugees
After a significant period of time, host countries have the right to close existing refugee camps, if the UN provides support for relocation of the refugees.
Refugees’ Bill of Rights
The UDHR states that humans have the right to privacy, education, health care, employment, return to home country, and to identify as a nationality.
All refugees have the right to be identified, recognized as, and to be clearly informed of their specific rights as refugees.
All refugees have the right to safety and protection while in and while traveling to a host country.
All refugees aged 17 and under have the right to adequate child care and supervision.
All refugees have the right to not be denied access based on religious affiliation.
All refugees have the right to knowing the time frame of maintaining temporary residency.
Refugees have the right to legal counsel and defense to alter the time frame during which they will stay in the host country, with the right to appeal decisions for review by the UN.