Does the United Nations Refugee Definition Protect All Refugees?

Andy Richardson makes a largely convincing case for the importance of examining refugee rights, but he leaves unanswered the definition of a "refugee."

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) penned the 1951 Convention on the Rights of the Refugee, it was done so in the wake of the atrocities of World War II and in the face of Communism. The definition clearly reflects this with regards to its focus on the fear of persecution by the state or state actors on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or member of a particular social group.

Africa was still a colonized continent and many of the issues that it experiences today had not yet presented themselves. 

This begs the question: Is the 1951 definition of refugee not antiquated?

As independence began to sweep the African continent and internal strife began to become more rampant, the African Union drafted their own definition of refugee in 1969, which reflected the changing causes of refugees. Most notably, it allowed for widespread political unrest resulting from internal strife or conflict to be a justifiable reason for obtaining refugee status.

This latter declaration is only applicable to African refugees seeking refuge in signatory African states. Unfortunately, it is only refugee status in accordance with the UNHCR definition that allows for resettlement consideration. Thus again, leaving millions of people outside of Africa unable to avail themselves of refugee protection.

There have been other subsequent regional agreements modeled after the African Union. The 1984 Cartagena Declaration applies to Latin America, and the 2001 Bangkok Principle for Asia both expand the UNHCR definition to include widespread internal conflict. Again, due to the regional nature of these agreements, resettlement by UNHCR is not permissible.

Unfortunately, the limited UNHCR definition leaves millions of refugees all over the world in states of limbo. They may technically be safe from refoulement (or the forced return to one’s country of origin), but they are often deprived of rights that many of us take for granted, such as the right to work, education, and healthcare­; yet many of those seeking refuge will never be considered for resettlement as they are not refugees by the UNHCR definition.

This is exemplified by Egypt, which is a signatory to both the UNHCR and African Union decrees. Unfortunately for the refugees living there, they are not guaranteed the right to education or the right to employment, oftentimes making survival beyond bare subsistence near impossible as they are forced to find employment in the informal economy, which exposes them to exploitation and poor working conditions.

Only upon addressing this issue can you attempt to address the other issues in accordance with either amending the 1951 Convention and/or expanding individual national laws that govern refugee rights.

Photo Credit: UN Multimedia

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Kathleen O'Neill

Kathleen O'Neill is interested in migration and refugee issues as well as international politics, with a particular interest in the Middle East. She has a double BA in economics and international studies with a concentration in Middle East studies from Washington College in Maryland. She has an MA in Middle East studies and a graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Kathleen has co-authored two short articles published by the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and London Middle East Institute at SOAS. She has lived in the MENA region for more than seven years.

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