The 1951 UNHCR Convention
Modern thought about the treatment of refugees crystallized in 1951, when the world’s powers set norms for dealing with people in exile. A UNHCR convention created the non-negotiable idea that those fleeing war or some equally great risk should not be compelled to go back home.
And refugees deserve fundamental freedoms and rights.
The strongest nations have the most capacity to absorb exiles, but not much incentive to do so.
Unfortunately, today, nations that signed the 1951 convention often ignore these noble concepts. And, counter-intuitively, a handful of nations that never signed the convention including Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, Thailand and Turkey have actually proven to be the most welcoming nations to refugees.
This circumstance underscores the paradox of existing refugee policies: The strongest nations have the most capacity to absorb exiles, but not much incentive to do so.
Meanwhile, weaker nations have little choice but to accept refugees, who often arrive from neighboring countries. As a result, fewer than 1% of global refugees are accepted into nations beyond their immediate regions.
“The European migrant crisis triggered in April 2015 has lifted refugees to the top of the political agenda for virtually the first time since the end of the Cold War.”
The tepid (showing little enthusiasm) international response to asylum seekers flies in the face of both common decency and common sense. Harboring refugees should be viewed as “a global public good.” Just as street lights make a neighborhood safer, taking in exiles helps make the world a more stable place.
The Legal And Moral Question on Refugee Issues
The essential legal and moral question surrounding refugee status is this: At what point would a reasonable person feel compelled to leave out of fear for his or her safety?
If someone is forced from home because of a credible fear of physical harm, then that person should be considered a refugee.
However, many nations use a more fraught test: persecution.
When two million people fled Zimbabwe from 2003 to 2009, South Africa declined to recognize most of them as refugees, even if they faced starvation at home, on the grounds that those displaced weren’t suffering persecution.
Somalia offers another example of how the persecution test often doesn’t make sense:
- People fleeing are doing so because the state lacks power.
- Violence abounds because the government cannot preserve order.
“Unlike migration, which is usually about an upside, refuge is needed when horrible things have happened to you and your family.”