The Refugee Convention is dead: let’s bury it and start again

In the past decade, there’s been a shift away from international norms for protecting people displaced by war and persecution. What would it take to fix this?

A Protest supporting refugees at the gates of Downing Street in November following the deaths of 27 people in the English Channel. Penelope Barritt/Alamy Live News

The 1951 Refugee Convention is dead; all that remains is to formally bury it.

For too long, the convention, which defines the term ‘refugee’ as well as his or her rights, has been more honoured in the breach than the observance. So has the 1967 protocol to the convention, which broadened refugees’ rights by removing geographical restrictions — the original convention applied only to Europe — and giving people fleeing persecution anywhere equal claim to international protection.

The list of countries brazenly flouting the convention is long — and growing longer — even though a newly published flagship report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency, says that the vast majority of people in the world (96.4%) continue to live in the country in which they were born. The World Migration Report 2022 adds that “trafficked migrants represent a small share of the 281 million international migrants in 2020” and that the pandemic had reduced the overall number of international migrants by roughly two million.

Even so, the fear of migrants — particularly those who may become asylum seekers and then be recognised as refugees — runs high, especially in the affluent West.

The UK is pushing ahead with a controversial immigration bill. Immigration lawyers say that the proposed law will penalise asylum seekers for having reached Britain by an illegal route, the only means available to most people. A 95-page legal opinion commissioned by Freedom from Torture, a human rights group, said that the British bill is potentially in breach of articles 31 and 33 of the Refugee Convention and that penalising asylum seekers — with a prison sentence of up to four years for entering the UK without a visa, for instance — negates its very “core”.

The lawyers added: “The basis for the attack on irregular arrival is that refugees should use safe legal routes. But there are no such safe legal routes. There is no such thing as a refugee visa.”

Despite sustained, pointed and legitimate criticism of the bill, it continues to move through the legislative process. Meanwhile, the British home secretary, Priti Patel, proudly heralded it on her Twitter account and described it as “ strengthening our borders”. For more than a year, Patel has reportedly been exploring a range of options to keep asylum seekers away from Britain. These include transporting them to processing centres on Ascension Island in the south Atlantic, or in Papua New Guinea, Moldova or Morocco — though no such arrangements have yet been formalised.

Refugees keep out

For the better part of a decade, the European Union (EU) has also been prioritising policies that go against the spirit of the Refugee Convention. After a record 1.3 million people, mainly from war-torn Syria, sought refuge in Europe in 2015, the EU tied aid for transit countries to improving migration management. In November 2015, the EU began to pay out3bn to Turkey in exchange for “the rapid return [to Turkey] of all migrants not in need of international protection”. In April 2017, the EU Trust Fund for Africa said it would spend €90m in Libya for “protecting and assisting migrants… managing migrant flows through the southern Libyan border [and] increased cooperation with Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria”. In June 2018, European leaders began exploring “ regional disembarkation arrangements “ for migrants in the Middle East and Africa. Though the bloc spoke of “post-disembarkation processing in full respect of international law and human rights”, the objective of this and the previous initiatives was clear — to keep the uninvited off European soil.

The EU and Britain are taking a familiar trail, one blazed by Australia back in 2013. That was when the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, declared: “From now any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.” Asylum seekers were shunted off to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, with whom Australia signed so-called ‘regional resettlement’ agreements, the earliest versions of Europe’s disembarkation arrangements and Britain’s planned offshore refugee processing centres. Successful applicants could seek residency on either of those Pacific islands but would never set foot on Australian soil.

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall


PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university