Today, as the World Humanitarian Summit concludes in Istanbul, BBC World Service broadcast an episode of The Inquiry titled ‘Would a New International Convention Help Refugees?’. The programme looks back at the history behind the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, forged when the world was recovering from World War II, with huge numbers of people displaced. Now, 65 years on, as the world grapples with the largest numbers of displaced people since then, the programme asks whether a new convention is required. It features analysis from four experts, including Professor Cathryn Costello and Emeritus Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill.
Professor Costello outlines the definition of a refugee within the Convention. She states that: “The 1951 Convention speaks of people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on particular grounds. Those grounds include race, religion, political opinion, and membership of a particular social group.” The Convention thus distinguishes between refugees, who are eligible for protection, and economic migrants, who are not. But the Convention was originally meant to cover only those who became refugees due to events in Europe prior to 1951, to address the post-war crisis.
Moving forward, Costello comments on the displacement caused by the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which led to almost 200,000 people fleeing Hungary for neighbouring Austria. The decision was made that these displaced do fall under the 1951 Convention, which leads to their resettlement in various countries around the world in an “extraordinary example of international cooperation in refugee protection” that “sets the scene for realising that the agency, the UNHCR, and the Convention both need to have life beyond just dealing with people displaced by events pre-1951.”
In 1967, a protocol was added to the Convention, applying it worldwide and without time limit, which means that today, as Costello says, “people are recognised as refugees all over the world… It’s the benchmark by which we assess how states treat refugees.”
Later in the programme, Professor Goodwin-Gill speaks on the politics of sharing responsibility for refugees, and the possibility of negotiating a new convention: “A great deal of reluctance has been manifested in sharing responsibility even amongst a community as, in principle, well organised as Europe… It seems to me that 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 that the appearance of lack of control is very, very damaging.” In such a context, attempting to negotiate a new refugee convention carries the risk, expressed by many refugee advocates, that “we will lose what we’ve got”. A more ‘evolutionary’ approach is likely to be less damaging.
In answer to the current crisis, Goodwin-Gill favours learning from what we have achieved informally in the past, from the response to the Indochina refugee crisis for example. The Indochina crisis, he says, represents an opportunity to “learn what it takes, what is necessary to bring states together and…hammer out, initially perhaps in a non-binding way, to get states formally to commit to share, to commit to assume responsibility first, rather than thinking that the best answer is…binding legal obligations.”
Listen to the full programme, including comments from Professor Philip Cole and Dr Luara Ferracioli here >>
You can also read the interviews on the BBC News website >>