Global Amnesia; The Refugee Convention after 70 Years

The following essay is the winning entry in a competition UNHCR ran with Oxford Development Consultancy. We asked people to consider the following question: 'July 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. How has it helped save lives over the decades and what might be the impact if it was abandoned?'

Signature of the 1951 Refugee Convention in Geneva, Switzerland /the three seated men (l-r): Mr. John Humphrey, Director of the Human Rights Division; Mr. Knud Larsen (Denmark) President of the Conference; Dr. G.V. van Heuven Goedhart, High Commissioner for Refugees / copyright Arni / UN Archives / August 1, 1951  © UN Archives

In 1949, the famous philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a haunting article: “There is only one human right”. The piece is poignant, sharp and downright sceptical of the budding human rights agenda at the time. If the refugee flows of the Second World War had shown Arendt one thing, it was the powerlessness of those cast out of their political communities. Without citizenship, one could not assert their rights. There was no police to go to, no court to appeal, no politician to approach. One had just lost “the right to have rights”, and to Arendt this made it very unclear how human rights were exactly “unalienable”.

The Refugee Convention can be considered as one of the answers. It created a fundament in international law for the right of the refugee, who had the right to flee persecution, and the right to be granted asylum and the freedom that entailed, simply by being a human on the run for tyranny. Over the decades, the Convention has helped save thousands of lives. It sheltered the hundreds of thousands of European refugees, who wandered across the old continent aimlessly long after WOII. It provided the legal grounds for the resettlement of 2,5 million Indochinese, after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. And the USA alone has taken in more than 3 million refugees since acceding to the 1967 Protocol, which enriched the original treaty. For all these years, the Convention has embodied the right to refuge, so that no one has to feel humiliated when saved, or degraded when helped (Arendt 1943). Asylum is their right.

We have forgotten this. There never were perfect stories, as there have always been states unwilling to uphold their duties, and refugees falling through the cracks. But the Rohingya and Syrian refugees of the 2010s found fences and border guards, instead of safe havens. The Mediterranean has been turned into the moat of Fortress Europe. Australia has gone the extra mile to ensure that no “illegal” asylum seeker ever touches land. And the USA has moved on from its call for the tired, the poor, the huddled mases, batting no eye while chucking refugees back over the border fence they came from. Even the core principle of “non-refoulement” is no longer safe, which prohibits the return of asylum seekers to a country where they would likely be in danger (Benhabib 2020).

With the increasing amount of political leaders pretty keen on putting the Convention through the shredder (Ferracioli 2014), one has to ask why. Caveats within the Convention are not new. What exactly constitutes “prosecution”, for example, has been difficult to define, which has led to some dystopian situations in which governments tried to assess whether someone was really “gay enough” to have to fear for their life in their country of origin (Morgan 2006). Neither does the Convention provide much guidance on how to spread refugees across countries equitably. Pakistan, Uganda and Lebanon bear the brunt of global refugee flows, while Hungary takes in no one. Any criticism of the Convention along these lines, and proposals to improve upon it, should be celebrated. Most arguments in favour of suspending or even abolishing the Convention are, however, not along these lines.

The critiques of the recent years have been characterised by an utterly narrow selfinterest, and are often ill-informed. It has been said that we should not grant asylum, for we might invite terrorists into our home. But the Convention is very clear that people whose actions go against the values of the UN do not have to be given shelter, and as such does not stand in the way of national security. The Convention has been charged to foster human trafficking, because it requires recipient countries to accept refugees irrespective of whether they came into the country legally. But it seems that this has more to do with the lack of legal means of travel, than the Convention itself. And while manic news reports of “refugee tsunamis” have fostered fears about the socio-economic costs of asylum seekers in rich countries, I am still looking for any developed country where the situation even comes close to the predicament of Lebanon.

This is not to say that we should not listen to concerns. If welcoming refugees in a nation is socially or economically unsustainable for any solid reason, the international community should step in. As refugee numbers keep growing, and the reasons for fleeing their countries grow ever more diverse, we need to think of creative and durable solutions. But too many countries preach abroad why they no longer practice at home. We seem to be sliding back to “the right to have rights”, conjuring the dark days when dozens of countries turned away the Jews fleeing from Nazi-Germany, because the immigration quotas needed to be upheld (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2021). While we can improve upon the Convention, it seems doubtful that revisions at this point would help strengthen it. In contrast, when we look at all the recent attempts to circumvent the Convention around the world, it seems more likely that an array of countries would try to water-down the treaty, instead of making it future-proof.

This would shatter the aegis of the refugee, which the Convention has been since 1951. Abandoning the Convention would have gruesome, predictable consequences: borders close, people die. One only has to look at the Mediterranean to see. After 70 years, it seems we have forgotten why we created the Convention in the first place. Our grandparents said “never again”. This anniversary seems the perfect moment to reflect on how we as the current generations go about fulfilling that promise.

Bibliography

Arendt, H. (1943), “We Refugees”, Menorah 31:1, pp. 69-77, available at: https://amroali.com/2017/04/refugees-essay-hannah-arendt/ [accessed on 10-06- 2021].

Arendt, H. (1949), “Es gibt nur einziges Menschenrecht“[„There is only one human right“], Die Wandlung 4, pp. 754-770.

Benhabib, S. (2020), “The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights”, Jus Cogens 2, pp. 75-100.

Ferracioli, L. (2014), “The Appeal and Danger of a New Refugee Convention”, Social Theory and Practice 40:1, pp. 123-144.

Morgan, D. (2006), “Not Gay Enough for the Government: Racial and Sexual Stereotypes in Sexual Orientation Asylum Cases”, Law and Sexuality 15, pp. 135-161.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees”, Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees [accessed on 10-06- 2021].