The Global Cop-Out on Refugees

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During the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a non-governmental observer - clearly frustrated by the difficulty of securing firm commitments to protect refugees - commented that:

decisions had at times given the impression that it was a conference for the protection of helpless sovereign states against the wicked refugee. The draft Convention had at times been in danger of appearing to the refugee like the menu at an expensive restaurant, with every course crossed out except, perhaps, the soup, and a footnote to the effect that even the soup might not be served in certain circumstances.

Despite Mr Rees' pessimistic assessment, two of three key elements of a binding and powerful commitment to refugees were ultimately secured in the Refugee Convention. First, States agreed to a common definition of refugee status, which has largely withstood the test of time. Secondly, and equally importantly, they committed themselves to what remains an extraordinary catalogue of refugee rights - sensibly oriented to the economic empowerment of refugees, yet flexible enough to take real account of the circumstances of the States to which they flee. The major failing of the Convention, however, was the absence of agreement on a third key element: a common operational mechanism, in particular one that would ensure that protection burdens and responsibilities are fairly shared among States.

Mr Rees’ unhappy restaurant menu metaphor would actually be more apt to describe the recently completed effort to respond to the missing third (operational) pillar of the Convention: the Global Compact on Refugees (Refugee Compact) and its companion Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). Despite the grand objective of moving beyond particularized duties to ‘provide a basis for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing’ among States, what we’ve been offered is very much a menu of possibly wonderful courses (we’re not sure, however, since the descriptions are vague). Indeed, this is not really a menu so much as an indication of items that might (or might not) be available on a given day. In fact, this is not really even a (quasi-) menu for a restaurant; it’s more about what might be offered in a special function dining hall that will only open if a truly large group of hungry people arrives (although we’re not sure how many have to show up before the chef and serving staff will come in to work). In short, this is not the menu for a restaurant that you’d want to count on when making plans to dine.


This article is freely available to read from the publisher.