Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

This week’s Sunday Edition on Canada's CBC Radio features an interview with Professor Alexander Betts focusing on the 1951 Refugee Convention, and asking can this be rewritten for the 21st century?

As the programme states, the UN Refugee Convention was written in 1951 and defines who is a refugee and the rights to which they are entitled. But today, many countries are no longer complying with international law under the Convention, presenting a serious challenge to it.

As Betts says, “The Convention is a product of its time and geography. It was created for post Second World War Europe… the idea was to protect people whose governments were out to get them.” Today, however, “[p]eople are fleeing generalized conflict and violence ... rather than that individualized persecuting regime.”

Thus today we have a situation where, he says, “courts and bureaucrats around the world are being forced to shoehorn contemporary circumstances into an old anachronistic definition” and this has led to considerable variation between countries in decisions on who gets refugee status and who does not.

However, Betts states: “crucially that’s not an argument to dispense with the Convention. The Convention should be maintained because if we tried to renegotiate it we’d get a far worse deal for refugees today than we've had in the past.”

Instead of rewriting the Convention, Betts argues that we need to be practical, to work gradually, and to recognize that the 1951 Convention is “indispensable but inadequate”, and to persuade governments to provide protection and assistance through tools other than international law, such as “political analysis and political persuasion, use development assistance to empower refugees… to empower host communities… and see the refugee issue sustainably, not just as a humanitarian issue but as a development issue.”

Listen to the interview here >>

Related content

Alexander Betts People

Refugee Economies Programme Research

Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System Publications

Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement Publications