By Mireille Girard, UNHCR Representative in Greece
More than 2400 years ago Euripides’ famous tragedy “The Trojan Women” was first performed, recounting the horrors of war and loss suffered by the survivors after Troy’s fall.
War, militia killings, violence perpetrated by non-state actors, persecution by States, attacks based on gender identity or religion are among historic scourges for which there are now legal protections for persons forced to flee.
Those protections were enunciated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which turns 70 years old today, 28th July. They were first afforded to Europeans persecuted during the Second World War, but eventually expanded to give all persons worldwide legal rights to safety. This landmark agreement was one of the first treaties to be adopted after the war and the establishment of the United Nations, forming part of the nascent human rights framework, to formalize a minimum set of rights for persons fleeing persecution.
The 1951 Refugee Convention protects the rights of people who have been forced to flee their country, or cannot return, owing to persecution. It remains as relevant today as it was when it was first presented to the international community and provides a set of shared principles for states to better manage asylum and to cooperate among themselves.
The Convention states that the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
Over the past 70 years, countries all over the world have faced the realities of large-scale movements of people fleeing conflict, oppressive regimes and other forms of persecution, violence and violations of human rights. Today, 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries.
Despite the largest refugee numbers being far from the EU’s borders, Europe did face a large influx in 2015-16, largely over now, but which generated huge solidarity from European populations throughout the route. Greece was one of the frontline countries receiving the largest numbers initially. Hospitality is being put to the test with the passage of time, but it would be unfair to consider that the values that Europeans demonstrated at the time have disappeared. They are very much at the heart of what Europe was based on and aspires to, as highlighted by EC Commissioner Johansson in her message on the occasion of World Refugee Day in June this year. In fact, most of the first signatories of the 1951 Convention, 70 years ago, were European States. The resonance of the Convention has now spread all over the world and it remains one of the most widely ratified treaties globally.
Today, more than ever, forced displacement of people fleeing war and persecution remains a reality for States. The role of UNHCR is to help States address these challenges and ensure that persons in need will receive the protection they deserve and have a right to.
The sovereign right of states to control their own borders is fully compatible with their obligations under international human rights and refugee law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, to ensure that people who need protection are able to seek and enjoy asylum, also when they have to cross borders without the necessary papers, and that they are identified and protected against refoulement. These are amongst the core principles of the Refugee Convention, which remains applicable even in the context of a global health, or any other, emergency.
The Convention is essentially the modern embodiment of the age-old institution of asylum, underpinned by fundamental humanitarian values and reaffirmed by member states of the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 with the Global Compact on Refugees. Asylum has saved millions of lives and will continue to do so for as long as the cruelty of war and loss, as narrated by Euripides, remains a sad reality of the modern world. It is about us as human beings, what we believe in and what we stand for.
*This op-ed was originally published in newspaper TA NEA of 28 July 2021, adapted in Greek, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention.