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Is the Refugee Convention living up to the times?

Martina Schwikowski
August 23, 2021

As the UN document turns 70 years old, experts say there is a lack of political will to implement the rights of refugees under the agreement. Countries in Africa are already moving beyond it.

TABLEAU | Weltflüchtlingstag 20.6.2021 Bildergalerie
Image: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Defending human rights is Hamado Dipama's passion. It's something he's been committed to every day since he fled politically motivated violence in his home country, Burkina Faso.

Twenty years ago, as a young student, Dipama joined protests against the dictatorship of Blaise Compaore, who ruled Bukina Faso with an iron fist for 27 years until he was swept from power following a popular uprising in 2014.

Dipama eventually ended up in Munich, the regional capital of Bavaria in southern Germany. 

"When I was fleeing, I wasn't aware of the Geneva Refugee Convention," Dipama told DW in an interview. "It's not something that's talked about in the Global South; people there have little information about it."

'Why don't I receive protection?'

But when he arrived in Europe, Dipama was confronted with the realities of the convention and how it provided refuge for some — but not others.

"Why do certain people get protection and I don't, even though I could demonstrate everything about my situation in Burkina Faso?" said Dipama, who held a "tolerated stay" permit for his first nine years in Germany.

This barred him from regular employment, moving freely within the country and accessing most welfare programs.

Hamado Dipama at a demonstration against racism in 2017
Hamado Dipama — here in 2017 at a demonstration against racism — actively fights for the rights of refugeesImage: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance

Refugees receive rights

The Geneva Refugee Convention (formally known as the "Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees") is an indispensable foundation of international refugee protection.

It defines who is a refugee and what rights — and obligations — they have. People are entitled to refugee status if they have left their country because of a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion," according to the original wording.

In the aftermath of World War II and in the face of growing political tensions between East and West, the United Nations adopted the convention in Geneva in 1951.

Initially, it was limited to protecting mainly European refugees immediately after World War II. To reflect the changing situation worldwide, a 1967 protocol expanded the convention's scope.

Some 149 states have signed one or both of the conventions.

Key treaty

The Refugee Convention still plays an important role today: it is the only document that obligates states to provide protection to refugees, said Susan Fratzke, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels.

Today, however, people are forced to leave their homes for different reasons than in the Cold War situation, she said: governments are failing, rival groups are fighting for power, economies in home countries are collapsing, and they can't feed their families.

"None of that is included in the [convention]. But that doesn't mean it has become useless. We have to think further and become more creative to meet people's needs," Fratzke told DW.

Even 30 years ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signaled awareness that people had new motivations for fleeing, such as the harsh economic situation in their home region.

"These are not people fleeing persecution but in the hope of a better life," Douglas Stafford, then deputy high commissioner, said in a 1991 DW interview. "We have to be very careful in the future about how we address the problems of economic migrants."

But 30 years on, leaving home for economic reasons still isn't a criteria under the convention. 

Sea crossings on the rise again

Host countries in Africa lack resources

Today, almost every African country has signed the Refugee Convention and for decades, several African countries have played host to some of the largest numbers of refugees in the world.

Many African states went "a step further," explained Fratzke, by adopting the Refugee Convention of the Organization of African Unity — the predecessor organization to the African Union. In doing so, signatories give refugees legal rights that aren't covered in the Geneva Refugee Convention. 

Abiy Ashenafi, who heads the Migration Unit at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, also thinks the OAU agreement has addressed some of the shortcomings of the overly narrow definition of "refugee" in the Geneva Convention.

Both experts, however, see a problem with implementation: Many of the African countries housing refugees lack resources and are themselves fragile nations with economic difficulties.

UNHCR official with a mass of Congolese refugees
According to the UNHCR, around 70,000 people have arrived in Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo since the beginning of 2018 as they escape violence in Ituri provinceImage: Reuters/J. Akena

Little political will

The Geneva Refugee Convention falls short of its potential. One problem is the lack of binding obligations to share responsibility, says migration expert Abiy Ashenafi, who believes the convention could be reformed to include this.

It also fails to provide for a complaints mechanism for refugees against host states, he wrote in an email to DW.

Another issue, according to Fratzke, is that the convention isn't an executive body. Each signatory must enshrine its commitment to the convention through appropriate asylum laws in the home country. 

The problem, she says, is that many states are "unwilling or unable" to do so.

"As a result, it's hard for refugees to get protection, even though they have a right to it under the convention."

Illegal immigrants sit on the ground outside of a van involved in an accident
People in search of a better life undertake often dangerous journeys to reach destination countriesImage: Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

Respect and renew current convention

Back in Munich, Hamado Dipama from Burkina Faso criticizes how host nations deal with refugees, which often deviates from the convention.

Deportation is questionable, for example when well-integrated refugees are sent back to volatile home countries, said Dipama, who has been a spokesperson for the Bavarian Refugee Council since 2007.

Dipama personally experienced the fear of deportation from his time living as a "tolerated" refugee. In 2014, he eventually received a "settlement permit" that gave him more rights.

A month ago, Dipama applied for German citizenship — which wasn't an easy step, he said, because it means relinquishing his Burkinabe passport.

As for what a future refugee convention could look like?

"We don't have a big ask." Dipama said. "States should just do what they signed up to in the convention, and amend the document so that refugees from today's problem countries receive more protection."