Keeping with my goals to get networking and involved in issues I enjoy, last Thursday I went over to Chatham House to check out an International Law Discussion Group being given by the Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection in the UNHCR and Kris Pollet, Senior Policy Officer with the European Council of Refugees and Exiles. The talk focused on the 60th annifersary of the UN Refugee Convention and used the opportunity to discuss if the convention has had its day or if it is still relevant in the Europe and the rest of the World. 

The UN Refugee convention is still the only document to lay out the principles of asylum and refugee protection, so like it or not it’s what we’ve got to work with.  Erika Feller from UNHCR pointed out that two major shortcomings of the convention. The first is that it doesn’t impose a responsibility for states to grant asylum.  Thus countries have to balance the international humanitarian ideals vs. their state sovereignty.  Guess which one wins most of the time? (You don’t have to be a polisci nerd to answer this one)

The second major shortcoming of the 1951 convention in it’s current format is that it is predicate on sharing the burden of resettlement – but there is no actual statement on burden sharing in the document.  In the most recent decades the movement of peoples has been in masses too great for one/two/three countries to handle on their own.  But other countries signatory to the convention have been less than forthcoming with offers to help.  

All of this was extra interesting with the current events in Libya taking place as we spoke.  Did you know that Italy and Libya had a “friendship treaty” that stated Italy could conduct anti-immigration searches and intercept boats of refugees in the Mediterranean and send them back to Libya without any sort of fair process to determine if their claims of persecution are valid?  Preventive actions like these are increasingly common around the world and very worrying for those of us who think at the bare minimum asylum seekers should get a fair evaluation of their fears of persecution. 

There are about 7 more pages of notes that I find extremly interesting – but I think I will summarize for the benefit of 99% of the people who read my blog and didn’t do a Master of Arts in Immigration and Settlement Studies.

  • more people are leaving their countries and claiming asylum because they have no legal options for migration (ie. the boats in Canada and Australia)
  • there is an increasing need for temporary asylum systems that will ease the stress on the asylum system (one example of a temporary stream are the temporary foreign worker programs in Canada – that yes, have their own shortcomings – but clearly provide an opportunity for migration other than asylum)
  • can one document (the convention) continue to deal with asylum needs and protecting refugee’s rights?

Erika Feller and Kris Pollet were quite clear that while the convention is still relevant 60 years after it’s creation – it needs to be adapted to address the above concerns.


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