Many times refugees are people whose cultural rights have been violated. In the case of the refugees that our class helped out, this was exactly the case. It is first important to understand the concept of cultural rights to understand how violations of cultural rights lead to people becoming refugees. Cultural rights pertain more to the collective rights of a group as opposed to individual rights. As defined in our class syllabus, cultural rights refer to the right to:
a) preserve their culture, to speak their language, and to practice their religion and other cultural rituals;
b) to educate their children as they see fit, and to receive education about their own culture in mainstream schools;
c) to be allowed a secure economic base as a minority group in a majority nation;
d) to live free from fear, discrimination, and persecution;
e) to dress, to receive health care, to eat and to work, in accordance to their beliefs;
f) to use their ancestral lands as they see fit;
g) equal access to art, technology, and scientific knowledge, and access to a means of expression, including in the media
How does the violation of cultural rights relate to refugees? A refugee is defined as a person “who must leave his or her own country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion”.The refugees that our class assisted pertained to the largest indigenous group in Burma – the Karen. Many of their cultural rights have been violated over time. For years the Burmese government has committed abuses in “ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority rebel groups, including extrajudicial executions, rape, torture, force relocation of entire villages and forced labor”.This ethnic conflict began years ago, when Burma (officially known as the Union of Myanmar) gained independence from the British and the Burmese military tried to impose a national identity that did not include the ethnic minority groups but instead identified more with the majority group, the Bamar. The military regime sees all the minority groups as non-Burmans–and by extension, non-Burmese–who need to be controlled and suppressed. By not accepting these minority groups as equal ethnic groups in Burma that make up part of the national identity, these groups’ cultural rights have been violated. Furthermore, just for pertaining to these ethnic minority groups, they have faced discrimination and persecution. They have also been denied the same economic, education and political rights that the “majority” group in Burma have. Moreover, many people pertaining to these minority groups have been displaced and have had to move to refugee camps because of this mistreatment from the state. In the last fifteen years it is calculated that about 1.5 million Burmese have fled to neighboring countries and “about 9% live in refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border”.
Similarly, refugees from other countries also face a similar situation and are forced to look for protection and flee their country because their cultural rights are violated. Through our involvement in helping design an apartment for this refugee family, our class was able to gain a better understanding of the situation people face as a result of their cultural rights being violated. We hope that other students throughout the country will also gain this understanding when following our model to help design apartments for refugees.
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