The UN Refugee Convention turns 70

The UN Refugee Convention was signed in Geneva in 1951. © Arni/un Archives

The international treaty has allowed many lives to be saved, but the international community must uphold its principles, says the Geneva-based UN Refugee Agency.

This content was published on July 28, 2021 - 18:00

“The convention continues to protect the rights of refugees across the world,” said Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner for Refugees, in a press release on Wednesday. “Thanks to the convention, millions of lives have been saved. Seventy years since it was drawn up, it is crucial that the international community defends its principles,” he added.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines who qualifies as refugees, what their rights are, and the legal obligations of states to protect them. It was adopted in the wake of the Second World War to solve the refugee problems that the international community faced. Its application was initially limited to those who had become refugees prior to 1951. The subsequent 1967 UN Refugee Protocol removed this constraint.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate under international law to oversee how states apply the convention, and to work with them to ensure refugees are protected.

The UNHCR shared its concerns about attempts by some governments to “disregard or circumvent” the principles and spirit of the convention. These include expelling refugees and asylum seekers, pushing them back at land and sea borders, and proposals to organise their forced transfers to third-party countries with no regards for their safety.

“We didn't have to cross the Mediterranean in a rubber boat but had the privilege of being able to travel properly,” reflects Swiss filmmaker Samir, in an interview with the UNHCR. Samir recounts his experience fleeing Iraq to make his way to Switzerland in 1961. He wishes more refugees today had access to safe travel routes.

Addressing current difficulties, Grandi said that “the language of the convention is clear as to the rights of refugees and remains applicable in the context of contemporary and unprecedented challenges and emergencies – such as the Covid-19 pandemic”.

On the 70th anniversary of the convention, the UNHCR encourages more countries to accede to the convention. There are currently 149 state parties to either or both the Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are 193 member states of the UN. Switzerland signed on the convention on July 28, 1951 and ratified it on January 21, 1955.

Many countries in Southeast Asia are yet to become partiesExternal link to the Refugee Convention including India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Several historical factors are behind this situation, in a region that has known both great abuses and great hospitality.

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