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Web conference: UK Parliament, House of Lords, London
World Refugee Day on the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention: European solidarity and protection

Speeches and statements

Web conference: UK Parliament, House of Lords, London
World Refugee Day on the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention: European solidarity and protection

18 June 2021
Session on: The 1951 Refugee Convention: past achievements and future challenges

Thank you for the opportunity to join the UK Parliament to recognize the 70th Anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and to consider its achievements and challenges.

In 1951, the founding nations of the Refugee Convention were concerned to protect about 2m people who remained displaced and without protection 6 years after the Second World War. Today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Convention, the UN Refugee Agency has a vastly increased mandate covering over 82m refugees and people who are displaced in their own countries, plus unknown millions of those who are stateless.

The Convention and its 1967 Protocol defines who is a refugee and sets out the protection, assistance and social rights a refugee is entitled to receive; for its time a breakthrough agreement in recognizing social and economic rights of refugees. The Convention rests on two key principles: the right of everyone to seek and enjoy asylum and the absolute prohibition on returning a refugee to a place of violence or persecution. Today, 149 States are party to either the 1951 Convention, its 1967 Protocol, or both, reflecting a global consensus on these humanitarian values that now have customary law status and are binding on all nations.

The 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention is a time for reflection. What has the Convention achieved and is it able to respond effectively to the challenges that those forcibly displaced face today and will do tomorrow?

First, it is undoubted that commitments to the Convention have saved millions of lives over the last 70 years and even in this time of COVID-19. There are currently 26.4 million registered refugees hosted in countries around the world, testament to those governments that have endorsed the Convention, both in word and deed. Despite the need for measures to protect public health, most States have ensured that their borders are open to asylum seekers, providing them with protection and adopting digital technologies to ensure asylum processing.

The Refugee Convention has also inspired regional agreements such as the 1969 Organization of Africa Union Refugee Convention, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration for Latin America and the common asylum system for the European Union. 

Secondly, has the Refugee Convention shown itself capable of responding to contemporary challenges?

While recognizing its enduring value, UNHCR also faces significant challenges to its norms and effectiveness:

  • Nearly 90% of refugees are hosted by poor or developing neighbouring countries, typically in the global South, while relatively small and manageable numbers find their way to Europe and other safe havens.
  • Many refugee determination processes are weak, resulting in backlogs over years. Those asylum seekers found not to be in need of international protection all too often cannot be returned to their country of origin, undermining the integrity of the asylum regime.
  • Some States pushback asylum seekers at their borders or at sea, while others deny disembarkation of asylum seeker boats. 
  • Many leaders conflate migrants with asylum seekers and refugees for political gain.
  • Some countries seek to transfer their protection obligations to other, usually poorer nations and isolated islands, detaining asylum seekers in poor conditions, indefinitely.
  • COVID-19 has reduced resettlement commitments and activities, so that in 2020, fewer than 23,000 were resettled, though with the US commitments this number is expected to rise for 2021.
  • As many conflicts are protracted, seemingly irresolvable, voluntary returns to safety are impossible (Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, Sahel, DRC – and new conflicts – Ethiopia, Mozambique).
  • Many States are using COVID-19, economic challenges and irregular arrivals of migrants as cover for disproportionate measures restricting access to asylum and to the rights protected by the Refugee Convention such as the right to livelihood and freedom of movement.

Can the Refugee Convention respond to these serious challenges?

An answer lies in the Global Compact on Refugees accepted by the overwhelming majority – 181 – of nations in 2018. The Compact is a break-through. It is a legally non-binding, readily accessible document, written in plain English, under which States agree they will share equitably the responsibility for refugees and those forcibly displaced. In addition to States, the wider international community, civil society, NGOs, the private/business sector, parliamentarians, faith groups, scholars and city mayors, are now committed to the objectives of the Compact to support host nations and enable refugees to be self-sufficient in the countries in which they have found refuge.

These are more than abstract ideals. They are to be implemented through the more than 1,400 pledges made by governments and civil society and other stakeholders at the first Global Refugee Forum in December 2019. Their impact will be assessed by evidence and data. This December we will hold the High-Level Officials Meeting in Geneva to take stock of progress in implementing the pledges, and to plan for a future Global Refugee Forum in 2023.

The Compact builds on the core principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention and provides concrete measures to turn words into practice:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons. One is that pandemics have no respect for legal status. Refugees must now be included in national health care and have access to vaccines, to work, education, and social safety nets. COVID-19 will leave a socio-economic legacy that is likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable, especially those forcibly displaced from their homes.
  • A priority for the future, maybe the number one priority, will be the impact of climate change and natural disasters on the forced displacement of people as an exacerbating factor driving them from their lands to seek better pastures, water and food. Many will flee across national borders and seek protection in other countries. There may be situations where the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention could apply. People may have a valid claim for refugee status, for example, where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence.  

In addition to the Global Compact on Refugees is the proposed EU Pact on Migration and Asylum that presents an opportunity for concerted regional and global action rather than unilateral initiatives that push the challenges posed by refugees onto others. The Pact calls for European solidarity, the focus of our conference, today.

I have mentioned that parliamentarians are included as stakeholders by the Global Compact on Refugees. This is for good reason.

Parliaments and parliamentarians have the power to pass laws and budgets to preserve access to asylum, to facilitate refugee integration and to address the root causes that give rise to displacement in the first place.

Two weeks ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution and published a report that encourages European parliamentarians to implement the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration and to address root causes of displacement, build stronger institutions and promote good governance in countries of origin. The report reaffirms the strategic role played by parliaments in ensuring refugee protection and finding durable solutions and is a tangible demonstration of European solidarity.

At the UN Refugee Agency we are working in partnership with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to strengthen international parliamentary diplomacy for solutions on forced displacement globally.

We hope, over time, the Global Compact on Refugees, grounded in the ‘51 Refugee Convention, will promote equitable responsibility-sharing globally and reenergize the long honoured right to claim asylum, and, to have non-discriminatory access to livelihoods, freedom of movement and, ultimately, safety and self-sufficiency for refugees.

May I conclude by observing that the most effective way to ensure refugee protection lies is ensuring that nations and the international community respect and implement both the Compact and the ‘51 Convention in practice. The UN Refugee Agency welcomes the Call to Action by the House of Lords.

Thank you.