3 August 2021
Image: Refugees from seven decades mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention which took place on 28 July 2021. Credit to Gary Moyes/Together with Refugees
Last week we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. It’s the only global legal mechanism for protecting refugee rights and has saved countless lives since its creation. In the wake of World War II, when millions of people were forced to flee their homes, it was created to help people when they can no longer rely on their home country to protect their basic human rights.
As a multilateral treaty – that’s a contract between multiple countries – it legally binds the 145 states who have signed it to its definition of who refugees are, to provide them with rights, and to fulfil duties towards them.
The UK helped to draft the convention and was one of the first to sign it. However, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned that proposed changes to UK law known as the Nationality and Borders Bill (NBB) risk violating the Refugee Convention. This would signify a rejection of the UK’s commitment to protecting refugees. Since international treaties like this rely on international cooperation, this risks ‘undermining the very concept of asylum’ itself.
In this blog, we’ll take you through key facts on the convention and why the NBB is at odds with this life-saving set of laws.
Who is a refugee?
According to the convention, a refugee is someone who,
‘…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…’
Importantly, this means that refugee status should be universal. Anyone who meets this definition is a refugee. No matter where they are or where they have travelled from, they are entitled to the rights and protections set out in the convention.
You have to be legally recognised as a refugee by the state that you are in, to benefit from the convention’s rights and protections. Nevertheless, having a globally shared definition of who is a refugee is essential for holding governments to account when they fail to protect vulnerable people.
The convention originally protected only Europeans who’d been displaced before 1951 by the horrors of World War II. So, in 1967 these limitations were removed in most states, meaning that anyone who fits the above definition is a refugee.
Protecting refugee rights
The most important right protected by the convention is the principle of non-refoulement. This means that a country cannot remove a refugee to a country where they are likely to be in danger of persecution. This principle is so important, it applies to all countries whether or not they have signed the convention.
The convention also protects refugees from being punished for entering a country by irregular means. ‘Irregular’ entry means crossing a border without complying with the normal legal requirements like having a visa – for example, crossing the channel in a small boat. People seeking safety in the UK may have had to leave a war zone suddenly or hide their identity due to persecution. This means that travelling via legally regulated or what are known as ‘safe and legal routes’ is near impossible.
Because refugees are allowed to enter countries by irregular means, there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ refugee or asylum seeker. It simply doesn’t exist, which is why it’s widely agreed that this term is misleading, inaccurate, and dehumanising. Using this term assumes that it is okay to deny a refugee their basic legal rights and paves the way for further human rights violations. For example, those without immigration status in the UK can be detained under very harmful conditions – like in Napier Barracks – with no time limit on the length of their detention.
Rights under threat
If this government’s plans, under the NBB, become law, those who arrive by irregular means but are recognised as refugees would receive a new ‘temporary protection status’. This would only last for 30 months, with limited family reunion rights, and ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ – a legal condition excluding them from most benefits, which already endangers nearly 1.4 million people in the UK.
Under the convention, refugees don’t have to come directly from their home country to benefit from refugee protection. There’s no reason why a refugee must claim asylum in the first safe country they enter, and there are lots of reasons why they might not, like existing family ties or language skills in another country further afield.
As it’s an island and one of the west-most countries in Europe, it’s difficult to travel to the UK without first having entered another European country. Travelling to the UK is often a very hard, long, and dangerous journey, with people risking their lives to seek safety.
If the NBB becomes law, it seems as if camp-style accommodation like Napier Barracks will be ‘used as a form of punishment for asylum seekers who travel via safe third countries’. It would also remove people ‘who come here from a country where they could have claimed asylum’ to ‘another safe country’. The policies planned as part of the NBB will endanger lives and violate the convention.
In immigration law, a ‘third’ country means a country other than a refugee’s home country or host country. People can be returned to a country deemed ‘safe’ where they have no connections and are at risk of harmful or inhumane treatment or even death. For example, the EU has border co-operation agreements with Libya, even though migrants in Libya are often subjected to modern slavery and migrant women are at particular risk of sexual violence there.
70 years on
In 2021, the world seems unrecognisable from what it was when the Refugee Convention was drafted. Today, the convention is as important as ever in protecting refugees’ rights to rebuild their lives in safety. Despite global displacement at an all-time high, the number of people claiming asylum in the UK is at an historical low.
The UK should stand in solidarity with lower-income countries which host the most refugees and play its part by fairly treating and increasing the comparatively small number it receives. While the UK did help draft ‘the single law that has saved the most lives in history’, the Nationality and Borders Bill will threaten that legacy as well as countless lives.
Let’s come together to fight for a fair asylum system the UK can be proud of.
- Discover UNHCR’s Refugee Dictionary – learn what the word ‘refugee’ means to people all over the world.
- If you’re at university, find your local STAR group to get involved with making the UK a more welcoming place for refugees.
- Join our mailing list so you never miss an opportunity to stand up for refugees.