Inadequate UN Refugee Convention Putting Thousands in Danger

Despite mandating signatories to provide universal protection for refugees, the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees is an out-of-date Cold War document that is insufficient for protecting the lives of millions of people fleeing from the multiple crises of our times, said Vijay Prashad.

“There are people fleeing war zones; there are people fleeing climate change zones; there are people fleeing places whose economies have been destroyed by policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund. There are various kinds of refugees, but the convention doesn’t actually in a sense accept them all as refugees or as asylum-seekers.

“This is a serious problem, because it has given countries of the West in particular some latitude to say, well, you’re a refugee and you’re not a refugee. And I think there needs to be a robust international conversation to redefine or to specifically define a 21st-century refugee,” said Prashad.

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

This week 850 people drowned in the Mediterranean trying to seek refuge in Europe. According to the UNHCR, last year 1,800 people drowned, and so far this year 2,500 people have drowned at sea. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention is a key legal document signed by 144 states to protect refugees. It defines a term ‘refugee’ and it outlines the rights of displaced peoples so that Europe now has an obligation to protect the people that are trying to cross the Mediterranean according to international conventions. But clearly, this is not happening. Further, some of the refugees are being returned for not meeting certain requirements of the refugee convention. So what are we to do?

On to talk about this is Vijay Prashad. He’s the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure.

PERIES: Vijay, 144 countries are obliged to protect refugees, and yet the UNHCR itself is screaming, saying they are ill-equipped to deal with this crisis, and the 1951 Refugee Convention is just simply inadequate to deal with the crisis they’re facing. Tell us about the convention and its terms in terms of dealing with this crisis. Is it adequate?

PRASHAD: Well, there are two ways to look at the 1951 Convention. The first way is that it is rather universal and clear that the mandate for protection by countries that are signatories of the 1951 Convention on Refugees, this mandate suggests that countries must accept refugees, and then there’s a procedure by which they are integrated into the society. That is fairly clear.

The second way to look at the Convention on Refugees is that it’s very, very out of date. It was a Cold War document. It was constructed basically as a way to suggest that people fleeing from the unfree world, in other words the Soviet Bloc, should be welcomed into the free world, in other words the West. That was the character of the Convention on Refugees.

Today’s situation is much more complicated. There are people fleeing war zones, there are people fleeing climate change zones, there are people fleeing places whose economies have been destroyed by policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund. So there are various kinds of refugees, but the convention doesn’t actually in a sense accept them all as refugees or as asylum-seekers. This is a serious problem, because it has given countries of the West in particular some latitude to say, well, you’re a refugee and you’re not a refugee. And I think there needs to be a robust international conversation to redefine or to specifically define a 21st-century refugee.

PERIES: Now, Vijay, Turkey and Germany struck an agreement to deal with the refugees coming to Greece. What is the deal, and how are the refugees being processed here?

PRASHAD: Well, this is a very gray area. And as I said, again, the Convention is not up to the task of today’s crises. It is very, very [inaud.] and they have driven a large truck right through the spirit of the Convention on Refugees to create this agreement, which they signed on March 18. You know, there are about–official numbers suggest 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. There are about half a million asylum-seekers in Turkey. They’ve been put into camps. Amnesty International had a very important report out in June which has shown that the issue of the refugees in Turkey is [perilous]. They suggest that there are more and more children from refugee camps who are out working, and in fact therefore taking care of their families, that housing is substandard, and that Turkey simply does not have the wherewithal to take care of these at least 3.5 million people who are being held there.

So as I said, they have essentially violated the spirit of the Convention on Refugees. They’ve created these large camps for them in Turkey. And this is really not the way to go forward. And by the way, it’s unclear if this European Union, German-led agreement with the Turks is going to hold, particularly given the fact that the German parliament has basically raised the question once more of the Armenian genocide, has rattled the cages of Turkish nationalism. And it might be that in a few days, in a few hours we’ll see Recep Tayyip Erdogan abrogate that agreement. I’m not sure exactly how this is going to play out, but certainly the German parliament has poked a stick into the cage of Turkish political opinion, so I don’t even think that this deal is going to last. It was anyway a threadbare agreement, and this might itself fall apart now.

PERIES: All right. Vijay, I thank you so much for joining us today.

PRASHAD: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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