On 60th Anniversary of Refugee Convention States Failing Refugees

June 20, 2011

”They stripped me naked and assaulted me. I begged them to kill me. Instead, they cut off my hands with machetes.”
– Amnesty International Interview, Sierra Leone, 1996

libya refugees
The Dhehiba camp in Tunisia © AI

After World War II and the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Roma, LGBT and many others, nations and individuals recognized the need for safe refuge from persecution and genocide.

After years of discussion and negotiation, the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the UN Refugee Convention) and later the 1967 Protocol emerged and provided a framework for protection. Most importantly, it established that no one could be returned to a country in which her/his life or freedom would be at risk.

It also placed obligations on signatories requiring they share responsibility when people flee across borders, and provide those seeking refuge with access to housing, health care and livelihood.

Today, this critical and life-saving convention turns 60 years-old. As a result of its existence tens of thousands of lives, if not more, have been saved, and nations have absorbed new cultures, languages and food, adding to the richness of those societies.

At the same time, unfortunately, the last decade has seen governments pay lip service to the rights of refugees while in practice devoting their energies to keeping refugees away from their borders so that they do not have to honor their obligations. Some states that have traditionally hosted large numbers of refugees now turn them away because of the international community’s failure to share the responsibility for protecting refugees.

In many countries, officials apply a restrictive interpretation of who should qualify for protection as refugees under the Refugee Convention and/or Protocol, with the result that people fleeing persecution are returned to their persecutors. Asylum-seekers find themselves denied a route to safety by airline or shipping staff, as well as by immigration officials. Every time this happens, someone’s life or freedom is deliberately endangered.

Similarly, the growing number of refugees and other displaced people is neither a temporary problem nor the random product of chance events. It is the predictable consequence of human rights crises, the result of decisions made by individuals who wield power over people’s lives.

Every refugee has a unique story to tell – a story of repression and abuse, of fear and flight. If governments fulfilled their responsibilities – if they protected their citizens instead of persecuting them – then millions of women, men and children would not have to gamble on an uncertain future in a foreign land, and those in exile could return home safely.

In 2000, the UN created Word Refugee Day to raise awareness about the dire situation many refugees continue to face.  This year’s theme is “Do One Thing.” This simple direction asks individuals to do just one thing to advance the cause of refugee rights and to raise awareness about the plight that many face.

This can be anything from taking online action now to protect refugees, to donating money, attending a World Refugee Event,  and reading a book about refugees and educating a friend about the issue.

On June 22nd, we’ll be hosting a photo exhibit and reception with partner organizations at the Rayburn Office House on Capitol Hill. Similar events are being organized in communities across the U.S.

We hope you will join us in this remarkable celebration of human resilience, compassion and strength!