The Right to Information: Expanding Access for Refugees

War zones, and the paths along which people flee them, are sites of abundant rumor and few certainties. Parties to a conflict may have a strategic interest in spreading misinformation and rumors, while hostilities may have disrupted the ordinary flows of news from independent organizations. Yet even affected people who have managed to flee conflict as refugees may find little clarity. While host nations may not actively spread rumors, they may have little incentive to correct ambiguities over important facts like deadlines to apply for asylum. And generally speaking, refugees find themselves in countries where they do not know the language and whose media are not oriented towards providing them with information.

The Syria crisis exemplifies the perils of low information to people fleeing conflict. Refugees in camps in Turkey have reported a number of dangerous rumors, including the rumor that a group arriving by sea that does not puncture its raft will be sent back, as well as periodic gossip about members of certain national groups being resettled en masse.[1] Most troublingly, the number of people who have died on the Mediterranean route since the conflict began indicates an information failure: If there were some way to know, for instance, which smugglers were particularly untrustworthy, fewer people would lose their lives in the crossing.

Humanitarian actors are beginning to place more emphasis on the value of information to civilians fleeing conflict zones.[2] Already, the situation in Syria has inspired a number of novel responses along these lines from humanitarian actors: for instance, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps have launched a simple website designed for mobile phone to provide refugees in Greece, Serbia, and Macedonia with localized information on securing food and shelter, seeking medical and humanitarian services, and filing asylum claims.

Humanitarian and international organizations’ operational security needs may place some information off limits. However, to the extent it is consistent with the safety of relief personnel, these groups as well as host nations should take the lead in supplying refugees with information. Below, I review some potential legal bases of a right to information in the refugee context, and discuss policy arguments for providing such information.

An international legal basis for refugees’ rights to information

Refugees’ right to information may be divided into two categories. There is a human right to give and receive information that provides refugees a general claim to pertinent information on humanitarian services, legal requirements, safety threats, and other questions of interest. The situation of refugees, who increasingly are subjected to sophisticated tracking and surveillance methods, also brings into play the human right to privacy, potentially creating disclosure obligations in cases where refugees are registered and tracked.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) secures to individuals “the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” which includes the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”[3] While the right to express oneself and “impart” information does not impose affirmative duties on any state or organization,[4] the right to “receive” information may: if individuals are entitled as of right to receive information, then states as the guarantors of human rights may be required to facilitate their access to information in situations where private actors cannot. Article 19 therefore may provide a basis for finding an affirmative duty of states to provide crisis-affected populations with information, particularly given the difficulty traditional media may face in collecting and disseminating information in situations of conflict and flight.

For a variety of reasons, this duty may in some cases be best and most easily discharged by humanitarian organizations. There may be some types of information – such as information about legal requirements for asylum – that the state is best suited to provide, since it sets the contours of these requirements. However, information about humanitarian services, as well as information about what is happening in country, might most appropriately come from humanitarian organizations – which collect data on country conditions – as well as other types of organizations, like legal services organizations. States could discharge their duties to provide information under the UDHR through humanitarian organizations, by funding them and directing refugees to their information resources. Article 19 of the UDHR may further bind humanitarian organizations with a charter mandate to uphold human rights – including the humanitarian organizations of the U.N. system – to discharge this right by facilitating access to information. This would create an independent duty on the part of these organizations to provide humanitarian information.

Refugees may also have a second and more narrow right to information stemming from their right to privacy. As large-scale data collection becomes more common in humanitarian crises, it begins to raise privacy concerns – for instance, refugees in Jordan undergo biometric eye scans in order to receive monthly aid disbursements from UNHCR.[5] A number of international and multilateral human rights treaties grant individuals a right to privacy,[6] and this right may provide a basis for disclosures in the humanitarian context where registration procedures potentially raise privacy concerns.

Why provide refugees with information?

It is fair to ask, in a situation where people are fleeing for their lives, why providing those people with information should be a particularly high priority. A common refrain at many international and humanitarian organizations is that their work consists of just one task: providing food, water, shelter, or medical care – or whatever other goods and services come within their mandate – to populations affected by humanitarian crisis. These logistical tasks alone can prove extremely challenging in a large-scale conflict, and rightly absorb the majority of these organizations’ time and resources.

Yet the charters or statements of principles of these organizations also give at least some attention to the terms of their engagement with target populations. Some organizations frame these terms as a question of consent: populations must affirm that they would like to receive offered aid. Others speak about participation in structuring and implementing programs as a way to account for individual and community needs while upholding the dignity and autonomy of affected people.

In an emergency these ideas may be imperfectly implemented. Yet as the Syrian refugee crisis, like most of the world’s refugee crises, becomes a protracted situation, sharing more information with affected populations – as the IRC and Mercy Corps have done – could be an easy way to uphold values of autonomy and consent while improving the flow of aid to affected people. It is impossible to consent to aid in all but the most purely formal sense without at least some information both about what types of help are being offered and about the context within which they are being offered – much less to participate in actually crafting programs based on individual and community needs.

Humanitarian and international organizations should consider whether information is one of the resources it ought to be a core part of their mandate to distribute. Often humanitarian and international organizations have exceptional insight both into events on the ground in conflict zones and into the dynamics of refugee flows, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of fieldworkers generating regular incident reports in the context of a single crisis. Negotiating the tensions between providing information to affected populations and maintaining neutrality before the parties to a conflict and affected countries may be challenging, but it is worth debating the proper balance. To the extent humanitarian organizations receive security information directly from governments, for instance, there would be a clear operational imperative not to share such information (and perhaps not to reveal that it exists).

In some cases, international and humanitarian organizations and governments have a second obligation to share information with refugees: where they are collecting identifying personal data. Large-scale data collection is an exigency in humanitarian crises, and extensive privacy protections may be impossible. To the extent it is able, UNHCR takes pains to safeguard the data that it captures. Nonetheless, there is something coercive about requiring refugees to share biometric data in order to access aid, and disclosing to refugees both the nature of the data being taken and its potential uses might go some small way towards mitigating this problem. Even if most people would prefer to share their data than go without money for food, drawing their attention to the data being taken and its potential uses might help to spur productive dialogues between international organizations and target populations about how to balance privacy and other interests like reducing aid fraud.

Means already exist to give and receive information about migration routes, legal requirements, ongoing hostilities, and access to resources, albeit piecemeal. Migrants use Facebook, Twitter, and messaging apps like WhatsApp to give and share information. Yet the prevalence of disturbing rumors along refugee populations – and the thousands of deaths of refugees in transit that the world has seen over the past year – show that incomplete and unfiltered information from social media may not give refugees all the facts they need to make critically important life decisions.

Becoming a refugee is a profoundly disempowering experience, and a lack of information can compound this disempowerment. Humanitarian and international organizations should take advantage of changes in technology to begin informing refugees about their options and their rights. Doing so could not just save lives, but help to start productive conversations between these organizations and the people whom they serve.

Emily Chertoff is a JD student at Yale Law School and a fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges. She focuses on international humanitarian and human rights law and policy. Before law school, she worked as a journalist for magazines in the United States and West Africa, and has published articles in Foreign Policy and The Atlantic.

REFERENCES:

[1] Renate van der Zee, Rumours and Lies: “The Refugee Crisis Is an Information Crisis,” Guardian (U.K.) (Aug. 18, 2016 at 2:00 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/aug/18/rumours-and-lies-the-refugee-crisis-is-an-information-crisis. Al-Jazeera reported on rumors about residents of Zaatari refugee camp being moved to a more remote location in Jordan, claims it reported caused “mass panic” in the Camp. Michael Pizzi, Isolated in Zaatari Camp, Syrian Refugees Find Ways to Get Online, Al-Jazeera (July 16, 2015 at 5:00 AM), http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/16/internet-access-zaatari-camp.html.

[2] A 2005 report by the free speech organization Article 19 clarifies both the stakes of information access in disaster contexts and the potential legal bases for finding a right to information in humanitarian crises. Article 19, Humanitarian Disasters and Information Rights: Legal and Ethical Standards on Freedom of Expression in the Context of Disaster Response (2005). Since Article 19 published its report, humanitarian organizations and governments have widely begun collecting much more extensive personal data using sophisticated biometric technologies. The collection of such data makes informed consent to collection – and, hence, access to information – all the more critical.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights art. 19, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948).

[4] The UDHR is not a treaty and therefore not binding law. However, parts of the UDHR, including Article 19, are customary international law. See Article 19, supra note 2, at 9. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is a treaty and has been ratified by 168 countries, contains a provision on freedom of expression that is nearly identical to the UDHR’s that protects a right to receive information. See Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard, U.N. Office of the High Comm. Hum. Rts. http://indicators.ohchr.org. Regional conventions also contain rights to receive information. See, e.g., European Convention on Human Rights art. 10(1), Nov. 22, 1984, 213 UNTS 221; American Convention on Human Rights art. 13, Nov. 22, 1969, 1144 UNTS 123.

[5] Dina Fine Maron, Eye-Imaging ID Unlocks Aid Dollars for Syrian Civil War Refugees, Scientific American (Sept. 18, 2013), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eye-imaging-id-unlocks-aid/.

[6] See European Convention on Human Rights art. 8, Nov. 22, 1984, 213 UNTS 221; American Convention on Human Rights art. 11, Nov. 22, 1969, 1144 UNTS 123.

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