On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention, we spoke to Roberta Buhagiar, CEO of the International Protection Agency, on how this landmark but ever-adaptable document remains a key reference point for the human rights based realities of the refugee situation in Malta and worldwide
First of all, could you give us a brief overview of the history of the International Protection Agency, and the work that it is engaged in?
The International Protection Agency is actually a very young organization, having been established on 7 August 2020. Between 2000-2020, a lot of the same responsibilities were handled by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner (or ‘RefCom’), which was a small government department limited by public service rules in terms of recruitment, and very much bound to the central government administratively.
As the asylum system grew to be more complex in more recent years, it was felt that the Office needed to expand, and subsequent decisions at the political level led to RefCom becoming a full government agency.
While the work involved in building the agency is still ongoing and not without its challenges – I would certainly have preferred to find it ready-made upon entry! – there is also something exciting about building the Agency from scratch.
“[The Refugee Convention] is the cornerstone instrument for even the most advanced asylum systems which have been developed since”
However, the essential role of the IPA remains more or less the same as what it was in its previous incarnation: receiving and processing asylum claims in Malta. I should add that unfortunately, sometimes people misunderstand this role and assume us to be advocates, when in fact our remit is limited to the processing of asylum claims.
Now that the Agency has been set up, what are some of its most immediate priorities and challenges?
At the moment we are engaged with restructuring the quality of our asylum procedures, in terms of document analysis and country of origin procedures, and also refining our processes in other areas.
This is, of course, a time-consuming process, not least because we are also dealing with a rather large backlog of cases which has been accumulating since 2016, for various reasons.
But things are moving forward, thanks to a number of factors: a recent lull in boat arrivals, certain tweaks in procedure from our end, and the support we have been receiving from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). The fact that we will be publishing a vacancy for case workers in the coming weeks is also a positive development.
It is my hope that the Agency’s restructuring process is completed by the end of the year. We’ve seen the need to professionalise our job, and we are investing in improvements in this regard.
Now that we are marking the milestone that is its 70th Anniversary, how would you describe the impact of the 1951 Refugee Convention, both in terms of your work in particular and the wider perception of the importance of human rights on a global scale?
I think that the Refugee Convention has had a tremendous impact in the field of asylum law since its adoption in 1951. It is the cornerstone instrument for even the most advanced asylum systems which have been developed since.
Its underlying principle is that people deserve to be protected for who they are… which is incredibly powerful, when you stop to think about it.
“Solidarity and responsibility will always be an evergreen issue when it comes to the refugee experience in Malta, because it’s so intrinsically tied to the island’s geography”
We have now had 70 years of a Convention that has actively aided in helping people. So it’s important not to lose sight of what the Convention is, and what it continues to represent. Because I certainly don’t subscribe to the view held by some, who claim that the Convention can only be seen in the World War II context it grew out of. It has had a far-reaching impact, not least because it can be complemented by additional legal instruments.
Beyond the universal aspects of the Convention, which aspects of it do you think are particularly relevant and/or urgent within the Maltese refugee scenario?
There are actually quite a few things worth mentioning in this regard. First of all, Malta’s active efforts to boost capacity and to invest in a reception and asylum system, both within the IPA itself but also at the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS), can be seen as a relevant enactment of certain key tenets of the Convention.
Solidarity and responsibility will also be an evergreen issue when it comes to the refugee experience in Malta, because it’s so intrinsically tied to the island’s geography: so many people have crossed Malta over the years, and I doubt that will ever change – it is a reality we have to deal with.
Other frontline Member States face similar issues to Malta on this front, which is why it’s important to keep highlighting our shared challenges on an international and European forum. Asking Malta to do its part on resettlement, for example, when the island is struggling with its own flows doesn’t seem quite right. What is needed is a concrete mechanism which guarantees support and solidarity.
How do the tenets of the Refugee Convention help to give clarity to your efforts, when dealing the challenges inherent in your work?
The challenges we face are often tied into the nature of the job itself. While it is a noble calling, not everyone can do it, and it takes patience and expertise to negotiate and administer what is ultimately a very complex procedure… which has only grown more complex over time.
So in my experience, referring to the Convention when making certain key decisions always serves to remind me of the spirit of refugee law and the wider tenets of the Refugee Convention. It is always a useful document to have on your desk.
Finally, do you think that celebrating the 70th anniversary milestone of the convention is important? What are some of the benefits in raising awareness about the Convention?
It certainly remains extremely important. Beyond the simple act of raising awareness, it stands as an important reminder of just how far we’ve come in terms of refugee law and protecting people in need. It’s also a testament to the strength of the definition of the word ‘refugee’, which has been able to adapt itself to take into consideration the many ways in which humans are capable of inflicting harm on each other.
Read more stories of refugees in Malta here