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Refugee Convention still relevant and necessary

29 July 20161 comment

It’s an unfortunate coincidence that in the week that marks the 65th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, we have 65 million people around the world displaced by conflict, oppression or civil strife.

And despite some people saying the convention is out of date or has outlived its usefulness, it remains the crucial cornerstone of human rights across the globe.

The Refugee Convention was adopted in 1951 and defines who is a refugee. It outlines their rights and the legal obligations states must uphold to protect these most vulnerable of people.

Conceived in the aftermath of the two world wars, the 1951 convention was initially aimed at protecting European refugees, but this was expanded to every nationality in 1967 as the challenge of forced displacement was seen as global.

UNHCR regional representative for Australia and the Pacific Thomas Albrecht says the convention is now more relevant than ever before.

“It’s a truly international human rights instrument… and an absolute foundational building block of international human rights law,” Mr Albrecht said.

Over the past six decades, 142 countries have signed on to both the convention and the protocol. The commitment means they’re obligated to protect refugees who flee to their territory, as well as provide aid, shelter, and access to education and work.

Most of today’s refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. According to the UNHCR, most of them have sought safety in developing countries fairly close to home.

Since the start of the war in Syria five years ago, more than 4.5 million Syrians have spilled over the border into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

None of the latter three countries have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning they technically have no obligation to recognise the displaced individuals as refugees. While Turkey has ratified the convention, it maintains a ‘geographical limitation’, which means it still only recognises refugees from Europe.

Refugees from Syria and other countries have also been arriving in record numbers in Europe, creating tensions between EU member states over how to handle the burden of new arrivals.

Most have arrived by sea, while others have walked across a land route via Turkey. Most ended up in Germany, which registered more than one million asylum seekers in 2015. In an attempt to curb the influx, some countries closed their borders and introduced passport checks.

All European Union states are members of the convention and protocol but some have been accused of failing to meet its obligations.

Some nations, caught up in nationalist politics, have resisted taking people in.

Aside from Europe, there’s the chaos caused by newer conflicts in countries like South Sudan. Recent clashes there have displaced 2.5 million people.

The scale of the current global refugee crisis, combined with the changing reasons why people seek refuge, has led critics to call for the convention to be updated.

Issues have been raised over whether the document is still relevant or whether the obligation of signatory states too great.

Alternatively, others complain that the definition of a refugee is too narrow at a time when scores of people have been displaced by a number of problems not just limited to persecution – from food insecurity in the Horn of Africa to gang violence in Central America or climate change.

Although these realities aren’t explicitly acknowledged in the text of the Convention, Mr Albrecht says it’s “a flexible, adaptable instrument that has saved millions of lives and is capable of being remade”.

“Our view is this is something to build on, rather than seek to reconstruct,” Mr Albrecht said.

“It’s really essential that we have an international treaty like the Refugee Convention, and that that continues to be upheld, because frankly today the world needs it more than ever,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist