As we celebrate 70 years of universal human rights, and their protection in the UK via the Human Rights Act, Tindyebwa Agaba – Development and External Relations Manager, Refugee Rights Europe – reflects on the work that still needs to be done to ensure that universal human rights are realised for everyone, including refugees and displaced people. 

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is clear that more must be done to protect and promote the human rights of refugees and displaced people arriving in Europe. Since early 2016, Refugee Rights Europe has been conducting research in Europe, and our findings clearly indicate that widespread rights violations are affecting tens of thousands of individuals seeking sanctuary. If we hope to uphold the tradition of safeguarding human rights in Europe, this situation needs urgent attention from human rights advocates and governments alike.

After the adoption of the UDHR by the UN General Assembly in 1948, European states also reached another notable human rights milestone. The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (known as the European Convention on Human Rights or ECHR) was drafted in 1950 and entered into force three years later. This Convention established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), allowing individuals to hold governments accountable in court for violating the rights laid out in the Convention – judgments of which would be binding. As such, the ECHR was the first human rights instrument to make some of the rights stated in the UDHR legally binding. It is an incredibly important document in the history of human rights in Europe.

Yet, worryingly, the human rights norms and provisions outlined in the UDHR and ECHR – which have so frequently been held up by decision-makers as a guiding principle of how we should relate to the world – are not being safeguarded as universally applicable rights in contemporary Europe. Refugee Rights Europe’s findings clearly indicate that governments are failing to meet these standards, and paint a harrowing picture of human rights for refugees and displaced people. These groups commonly face chronic police violence, a lack of access to information and education, substandard living conditions, gender-based violence and an absence of sexual and reproductive healthcare services.

The human rights infringements unfolding in Europe also include a failure to protect people from modern forms of slavery, including human trafficking as prohibited through Article 4 of the UDHR, and Article 4 of the ECHR (brought into UK law via the Human Rights Act). A vast number of respondents in our various research studies said they have family in another European country, and were desperate to find a way to be reunited. Some may be eligible for reunification under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, but the current process is so lengthy and opaque that many are prompted to take matters into their own hands, increasing their risk of falling into the hands of traffickers.

The same appears to be true for many vulnerable unaccompanied minors who could be granted protection in the UK under the ‘Dubs’ scheme, but who continue to be trapped in bottle-neck scenarios in places such as Calais and Ventimiglia, where traffickers can exploit their vulnerable situation. It’s critical that safe, legal routes for refugees are prioritised to effectively tackle the operations of trafficking networks operating across Europe, upholding the prohibition on slavery (protected in Article 4 of the UDHR and ECHR) for all human beings.

This year, as the UDHR turns 70, we must collectively continue to fight for the universality of human rights. We need to highlight violations occurring on European soil, and call on governments across Europe to ensure individuals seeking sanctuary here are afforded the protection and opportunities expected by international standards. Human rights must be at the centre of any policy initiatives and they must apply to everyone – refugees and displaced people included.

BIHR is featuring a number of guest blogs as part of this year’s March for Human Rights campaign. This year’s campaign marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by celebrating human rights here in the UK. If you believe in universal human rights, take a moment to sign our UDHR birthday card. We will be delivering this card to the United Nations and the UK parliament on Human Rights Day later this year, to tell those in power that universal human rights matter here at home.