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World Refugee Day 2021: A focus on exiled human rights defenders

AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders join the rest of the world to commemorate World Refugee Day which is celebrated annually on 20 June. This day honours the courage and strength of refugees including exiled human rights defenders (HRDs) who have fled their countries to escape persecution or conflict. This year’s theme, ‘Together we heal, learn and shine’ focuses on extending health care to refugees; transforming the lives of refugee children through education; and supporting refugees to be creative for instance through sport.

World Refugee Day highlights the needs and challenges faced by refugees with a view to securing solutions. In our previous reports, Exile shall not silence us, and Exiled and in Limbo, we explore challenges faced by exiled HRDs in Africa, and identify support mechanisms to help them cope in the host countries. Challenges identified range from physical attacks to online threats like increased surveillance. Additionally, HRDs loose legitimacy before their governments and fellow HRDs; face challenges with obtaining and verifying information remotely, as well as accessing funding to allow them to continue their work. Further, socio-economic challenges hinder their ability to settle and adapt to new environments. Exile can also take a toll on the wellbeing of HRDs in turn affecting their mental health.

Certain categories of exiled HRDs face additional risks. For instance, women human rights defenders face additional economic challenges when living in exile with their dependents as it is more difficult for them to provide for their families without a reliable support system. They are also vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. HRDs working on sexual orientation and gender identity struggle while in exile because of their orientation and gender identity. They are often not easily accepted by the host local communities and continue to be targeted by both state and non-state actors.

The aim of those perpetrating attacks against HRDs is to silence their vocal activism. However, exile, does not seem to work as a silencing strategy, as the majority continue their human rights work, disseminating information received by monitors on the ground through regional and international advocacy and campaigning, mobilising diaspora communities, and at times (re-)establishing organisations in exile.

‘I salute the resilience and courage of exiled defenders who continue their vital work despite the setbacks.’ Says Hassan Shire, Chairperson AfricanDefenders and Executive Director DefendDefenders. ‘We will continue to work to identify and develop mechanisms to support their efforts to promote the rights of others.’

To celebrate refugees, AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders will run a series of social media actions to highlight the courageous work of exiled defenders, and key issues pertinent to their circumstances. Please follow our social media handles @Africadefenders and @defenddefenders on Twitter for more information.

For more information, please contact:

Hassan Shire, Executive Director, DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +256 772 753 753 (English and Somali)

Joseph Bikanda, Coordinator, African Defenders; [email protected]

Estella Kabachwezi Advocacy, Research and Communications Manager, DefendDefenders; [email protected]