Thematic Program: Refugee Rights

by Andrea Holley


For those who want to address human rights issues in the context of refugee rights in their communities and globally, the following films are suggested:

Promises (2001, 106 min., closed captioned)
Israeli and Palestinian children meet under occupation.

Well-Founded Fear (2000, 119 min.)
A look at political asylum in the US, from the perspective of those seeking and those granting asylum.

Refugee Rights Discussion Program

Refugees are among the most vulnerable populations. Many people become refugees because they are fleeing human rights violations; many people arriving as refugees in another country find a whole new set of human rights issues facing them. The two films in the collection that deal directly with issues facing refugees – Promises and Well-Founded Fear – compliment one another. Promises looks at the Palestinian refugee situation – one of the oldest refugee populations in the world and a population that is completely immobile for the most part. By contrast, Well-Founded Fear looks at the refugee experience through the prism of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a place where people arrive daily from around the world.

Well-Founded Fear - Asylum Officer Gerald. Photo: Michael Camerini
In Well-Founded Fear, we see individuals who are seeking asylum in the U.S. The odds of a refugee receiving asylum are about 1 in 200 and, the viewer soon realizes, depend as much on the personal perspective of the officer assigned to the case as the circumstances involved in each application. According to INS guidelines, the applicant must possess an immediate and "well founded fear" of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. However, asylum granting is subject to individual biases and inclinations, as officers grapple with discerning the truth in each claim presented to them. In Well-founded Fear, as we learn the stories of various asylum seekers, we realize that only a few situations are clear-cut tales of good vs. bad. INS officers view only a few cases in black and white terms. Clearly, in some instances they want to believe the person sitting across from them; in others, they do not.

A set of international laws speak to obligations states have to refugees. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 states, "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." In 1950, the United Nations created the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CSR). The convention defines the term refugee and discusses specific provisions for persons with refugee status including education, employment, housing, and social welfare in general.

Promises - Yarko and Faraj. Photo: Meagan Shapiro
In Promises, the Palestinian children we meet are considered refugees. The status of Palestinian refugees is unique in that they have lived as refugees longer than any other current refugee population, and they have their own administration system under the United Nations, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. When you see the conditions in which most of the children live in the camps, it is not hard to understand why human rights groups have charged that human rights violations are occurring. We hear about the continual cancellations of school (right to education), the lack of access to water (right to the highest attainable standard of living), and the absolute inability to travel without being stopped, searched, and sent back home in many cases (right to freedom of movement).

One significant aspect of the Palestinian refugee situation is that it combines elements of diaspora with occupation by Israeli forces. The children living in the Deheishe refugee camp are clearly in the latter category, where we witness a complete dehumanization of the "other." The only Israelis these children have ever known are soldiers; what must they think? To meet Israeli children which they do in the film opens up a whole new world and a whole new way of seeing the other.

The Promises filmmakers have tried to avoid political analysis as they visit both Palestinian and Israeli children. In presenting personal and non-partsian portraits of these young people, they found in many cases that they share the things that all young people share even though divided politically. The hope is that with a growing understanding of each other, both sides in this crisis can move towards a resolution where all children in the Middle East have their rights protected.



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