World

Would a new UN Convention help refugees?

A child waits at the migrant processing centre on the island of Lesbos Image copyright Getty Images

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention was devised when the world was recovering from a global war which had displaced vast numbers of people.

But now, as the world grapples with a new refugee crisis, many think there are problems with the 65-year-old agreement.

The Convention was not initially intended to cover all refugees: it was largely restricted to people affected by events occurring in Europe before 1951. The United Nations Refugee Agency - the UNHCR - was set up at the same time. Its mission was expected to be over in just three years.

Four experts talk to the BBC World Service Inquiry programme about whether it's time for a new international Convention.


Cathryn Costello: An enduring idea

Cathryn Costello is Andrew W Mellon Associate Professor of International Human Rights and Refugee Law at Oxford University.

"People had been displaced during World War Two, but immediately thereafter, lots of people fled Central and Eastern Europe.

"Jewish populations who had survived the Holocaust were, in some cases, keen to move to Israel, lots of people were fleeing communism having survived fascism, so it was a really complex picture.

"The 1951 Convention speaks about people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on particular grounds, including race, religion, political opinion and membership of a particular social group.

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Media captionThe BBC examines the statistics of migration over decades across the world

"The basic idea is that if somebody has fled, they shouldn't be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.

"In 1956 there's a really important moment when almost 200,000 people flee Hungary, and there's a legal question: 'Are those people going to fall under the 1951 Convention?'

"A decision is made that they will be regarded as if they do, and within a matter of months they have been resettled around the world.

"It's really an extraordinary example of international co-operation on refugee protection. That sets the scene for realising that the UNHCR and the Convention both need to have a life beyond dealing with people displaced by events pre-1951.

"It wasn't until 1967 that it became officially applicable globally and without time limit. In some ways [this 1967 protocol] is extraordinarily successful because people are recognised as refugees all over the world whether through processes that UNHCR or national governments run, so this definition has a life in national law and practice around the world.

"I think the Convention is highly relevant and playing a vital role because it's the benchmark by which we assess how states treat refugees, but it has shortcomings.

"The definition of the refugee is problematically narrow, and that sometimes leads to problematic distinctions between people fleeing political types of persecution and people fleeing indiscriminate risks but I don't think a new convention is the best response.

"I think the real deficit in the refugee regime is the lack of international responsibility sharing, and there are other and better ways to address that."


Phillip Cole: A defining problem

Prof Phillip Cole is a refugee and migration expert at the University of the West of England, and a trustee of the Welsh Refugee Council.

"We have a convention that's arisen through specific historical circumstances: those have changed radically.

"The definition as it stands is very target-based: you have to be deliberately targeted by persecution. Those who fall outside of the definition are, if you like, the classic picture we generally have of refugees, people who are simply trying to escape violence.

"They are not the target of that violence but they happen to be in the way, so the vast majority of those we consider to be refugees actually don't fall under the definition.

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Media captionUNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt warned against a "race to the bottom"

"In order to count as a refugee you have to cross a border and that means that people fleeing violence who can't cross a border are not entitled to claim refugee status and therefore don't have protection. There are about 38 million internally displaced people in the world at the moment - in Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, but the major one is Syria.

"The big issue we are facing is climate change: the evidence is there are going to be growing numbers of people being displaced by natural disaster related to climate change in the future. The convention as it stands doesn't cover climate change refugees.

"Being homosexual isn't explicitly covered by the convention, but I know European states and the UK does take a more generous view of that.

"The problem with this ad hoc arrangement is it is piecemeal. It depends on the political atmosphere in a country at any particular time.

"I think a new convention would be of assistance. If we get a new convention in international law which people have signed up to, that means it's quite clear who has the rights and who needs to meet them. We need a much clearer view."


Luara Ferracioli: Leaving limbo?

Originally from Brazil, political philosopher Dr Luara Ferracioli teaches at the University of Amsterdam, and is currently doing academic work in Australia.

"I'm very interested in what the more powerful members of society owe to the more vulnerable members of society.

"There has always been a crisis because there are many more people who are in need of assistance than there are states willing to take them in.

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Media captionSamih arrived at the Idomeni camp in February, and showed the BBC what daily life is like

"Refugee camps only protect their rights to nutrition, housing, clothing, but there are no prospects for refugees to flourish. Recipient states should create a new bond with the refugee: there's no justification for placing them in a position of second-class citizenship.

"The fairest regime is one where all states take their fair share. And only if we make use of resettlement will we be in a position to distribute numbers more fairly, there's no other way.

"If we redistribute numbers, we create an incentive for only genuine refugees to make use of the refugee protection regime. Why would someone from Colombia - who is not a genuine refugee - pretend to be a refugee, make her way to the UK if she might end up being resettled in Argentina?

"When it comes to people taking a boat journey to make their way to Australia, if Australia would send them to another decent state somewhere else, there would be less of an incentive to take such a risky journey.

"It's not like I'm very optimistic and think there's a silver bullet for the current crisis, but it seems to me that resettlement can play an important role.

"[A new convention would be] the foundation of the refugee protection regime, and non-negotiable. Once it's there, it's what guides the action of states; it doesn't leave it up to states to decide how they should treat refugees.

"If we were in a much better political climate, then we could design a convention that does a much better job of protecting the rights of refugees."


Guy Goodwin-Gill: Political reality

In the 1970s and 1980s Guy Goodwin-Gill worked for the UNHCR, and more recently he's been professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford University.

"Back in 1950, the UN secretary general recognised that international co-operation on accepting responsibility for refugees was going to be key to the future success of the regime.

"Those were obligations that states, sadly, rejected and we've been paying the cost ever since, going very often from pillar to post in an effort to achieve solutions for refugees.

"A great deal of reluctance has been manifested in sharing responsibility even amongst a community as, in principle, well-organised as Europe.

"In a highly-globalised world, decisions about who enters your country - whether as a refugee or as a migrant - are amongst the vestiges of sovereignty, and I think the appearance of lack of control is very damaging.

"I don't see it as so much as a patchwork as an evolutionary process.

"The danger [of attempting to negotiate a new convention] which refugee advocates frequently raise is that we will lose what we've got. I think the effort itself could prove damaging to a system which has brought a certain measure of protection to millions of people over the years.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption After the Vietnam War, the UK accepted refugees from Hong Kong, its colony at the time

"I share the the doubts of many in thinking that we can lead with a convention. I think we have to review what we have been able to achieve informally in the past. What we did, for example, with the Indochina refugee crisis in the 1970s and the 1980s.

"Learn what it takes, what is necessary to bring states together, and hammer out initially perhaps a non-binding way to get states formally to commit to share, to commit to assume responsibility, rather than thinking the best answer is to translate them into binding legal obligations."

The Inquiry is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 12:05 GMT. Listen online or download the podcast.