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Connecting Islam and International Law to Help Refugees

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On June 20, many countries mark U.N. World Refugee Day with events to raise awareness about the situation of refugees. In addition, their status often poses difficulties for the governing bodies of the countries that host them. And various recent conflicts have led to rising numbers of refugees, bringing these problems to the forefront of global attention.

In recent years, Muslim countries especially have seen a huge growth in refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, recently stated that "in 2011, the 57 Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) states hosted 50 per cent of the persons who are of concern to UNHCR, some 17.6 million in total."

In this context, it is especially important to understand the Islamic principles relevant to refugees, the connection to international law and how both can help provide solutions for nations grappling with how to help refugee populations.

To this end, several representatives of OIC member states gathered at a conference focusing on refugees in the Muslim world in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan last month to address this issue in ways that can promote stability and peace.

This issue is crucial as it may be years before those who are currently refugees can return home. Khalid Koser, an expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank, estimates there have been approximately 2 million refugees who have left countries affected by the Arab Spring. It is likely that these individuals, who have moved to relatively better circumstances, will stay in their new homes until the economies in their home countries begin to thrive.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan provide a similar example. Although they can now find secure shelter in Afghanistan, the lack of economic opportunity there has led many who had returned home to go back to Pakistan.

The aims of the conference, which was co-organized by the OIC and the government of Turkmenistan, were reinforced by the launch of a second edition a poignant book, The Right to Asylum between Islamic Shari'ah and International Refugee Law by Ahmed Abou-El-Wafa. The book defines who can be characterized as a refugee, articulates their rights and looks at cases dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). As the book describes, Islam makes no distinction between white and black, Arab and non-Arab, insider and outsider.

Yet despite Islam's position on refugees, there are tensions between locals and "others" in countries where there has been an influx of refugees -- especially in countries that have high poverty rates or poor infrastructure and find it difficult to handle newcomers.

To fill this gap some groups are taking steps to support refugees. In Pakistan, for instance, the Edhi Foundation provides supplies and basic services, as do several small grassroots organisations.

It is important to note that there is also overlap between Islamic principles and international law when it comes to this issue. "There is not much difference between how Islam defines a refugee when compared with the 1951 [U.N.] convention" on the status of refugees, said El-Wafa, adding that "Islam offers asylum on religious, territorial and diplomatic grounds, and a person who is given safe haven and dignity in a Muslim territory is called a musta'men", which is commonly translated as "asylum-seeker."

The U.N. convention on refugees similarly protects refugee rights to enter a country if they are escaping threats to their life or freedom, and prevents host countries from returning them.

According to the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) every human being has the right to receive shelter. The custom of giving shelter is not limited only to Muslims and extends to non-believers as mentioned in the Qur'an (9:6): "And if any one of the [non-believers] seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to a place where he can be secure..." The principle of hospitality is thus embedded in the culture of many Muslim countries.

Nawabzada Malik Amad Khan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Pakistan, commented on the tension between ideals and practice, saying: "Hospitality and generosity is rooted in our culture and history. For generations Muslim communities have been welcoming their neighbors in need... Unfortunately, despite the exponential increase in the number of refugees, international assistance for refugee protection is dwindling. The burden is being placed mostly on those who are least able to carry it."

It is through efforts to bring both religious and international principles into the discussion on refugees that there is hope that leaders can find new and realistic solutions to this pressing issue.

Originally published in Common Ground News on June 19, 2012.