By Ute Ritz-Deutch
October 1, 2019
Ute Ritz-Deutch is a Lecturer at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, and New York State Coordinator for Amnesty International USA.
As a human-rights advocate I often refer to human rights documents when analyzing world problems. Many of these had their origin after World War II and the dislocation of 30 million people. From the realization that all humans have the same universal rights and that these need to be protected, several declarations, policies, treaties and international laws were created. The right to seek asylum is one of these human rights. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The UN Refugee Convention and the protocols that followed it, specifically addressed the issue of refugees and the obligations states have to determine if someone has a legitimate case. As a signatory to the UDHR and several international human rights treaties, the United States and other countries are therefore required to process asylum applications.
At the very moment when more than 70 million people are displaced and the world is witnessing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, many countries are shutting their doors and turning their backs on refugees, seemingly blind and mute to their humanitarian and human rights obligations. The situation is dire. The coming fiscal year the U.S. administration plans on allowing 20,000 refugees into the country at most, which is the lowest number since the U.S. Refugee Agency was founded in 1980. Similarly, only a tiny percentage of asylum seekers are granted asylum as conditions worsen; consequently, people who have fled from torture and violence are now forced back home. Children are separated from their parents at the border and often kept under inhumane conditions. Several of them have even died in detention. In recent decades more than one million families in the U.S. have been torn apart. And, as legal avenues continue to narrow, those who seek asylum are demonized as criminals and undesirables. The list goes on. But who are these people? What are their stories?
It is easy to get discouraged about the state the world is in today, because the magnitude of the problems is so great. Still, there is always hope, especially if more people are engaged, willing to educate themselves about these difficult issues and committed to taking action. Civic engagement is now more important than ever. That is why the “Power of Faces” exhibit is so valuable. It is important to recognize the humanity in people, whose circumstances have forced them from their homes. Through the portraits we can see them as fellow human beings, who are about more than just pain and hardship. They are relatable. They are inspiring. It could be us.