This week is Refugee Week. It is an opportunity to discover and celebrate the contribution of refugees to UK society. It is also a time to reflect on the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, and to remember the historical events and principles behind this significant piece of international human rights law and the impact that it has had on the lives of millions of people, including genocide survivors.
The 1951 Geneva Convention was adopted after a meeting of 26 world leaders in response to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who, having fled Nazism and later communism, continued to live in makeshift camps across Europe five years after the end of World War II. The widespread persecution and extermination of Jewish people and other minorities by the Nazis forced world leaders to address the practical consequences of persecution: it forces people to flee their homes and it prevents them from returning. In essence, it creates refugees.
The purpose of the 1951 Convention was to establish a universally binding refugee protection instrument to safeguard people who, having been persecuted in their own country, had been forced to leave and were unable to return. The Convention put persecution at the heart of the definition of refugee, distinguishing them from people who migrate for other reasons. It defined a refugee as:
‘A person outside of his/her country of nationality, with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’
Significantly, it also adopted the principle of non-refoulement - that states could not return a person to a territory where they could face persecution. Instead they had to offer them protection. It was an honourable principle that reflected the liberal and tolerant values on which the west had fought World War II.
When the 1951 Convention was first established, it was only seen as a short-term measure to deal with the post-World War II refugee problem, and as such had a three-year mandate. However, the process of decolonisation saw the refugee problem spread to Africa in the 1950s and 60s, then to Asia and then back to Europe in the 1990s, and the Convention continued to be used to protect the lives of millions of people.
Reflecting this, it was amended in 1967 to remove the time and geographical limitations that had been written into the original Convention. The genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust all offer examples of how the Convention has continued to provide protection to persecuted people. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge over 100,000 Cambodian people sought refuge in the United States; following the war in Bosnia, thousands of Bosnians fled their home country in search of protection from other European states; and during the Genocide in Rwanda thousands of Tutsi people escaped to refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Burundi and Tanzania. It is estimated that there are currently between two to three million Darfuri refugees in camps in Chad as a result of the ongoing genocide in Sudan.
The UK has a history of providing shelter to refugees fleeing genocide. In the months leading up to World War II the UK took in 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, on the Kindertransport, many of whom still live in the UK today. Bob and Ann Kirk were two of these children. They have share their stories of coming over to the UK with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
As a signatory to the 1951 Convention, the UK has also provided asylum to survivors of the Genocides that have happened since the Holocaust. There are a number of survivors of the Genocide in Rwanda living in the UK. Sophie is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. She had always dreamed of being a nurse, but because of the prejudice she faced as a Tusti she was never able to pursue this dream in Rwanda. She lost many family members during the genocide and fled to the UK to seek sanctuary. She has since rebuilt her life and now works as a nurse, is married with children. Sophie shares her experiences with others on Holocaust Memorial Day to raise awareness of genocide and highlight can happen when we stop respecting civil and human rights.
The UK Government also has a policy of granting asylum to non-Arab Darfuris fleeing Sudan. Karim is a Darfuri refugee living in the UK. He explains how important the protection that the UK has given him is:
'It is difficult to stay in touch with my family in Chad. I would like to go back to live in Darfur if it was safe. If you grow up somewhere it’s hard to leave, but we had no option. At least here we are safe.'
Abdul is also a refugee from Darfur. He has shared his story with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in which he describes how he fled Sudan to get to the UK.
The shelter offered to genocide survivors is an example of when the 1951 Convention is needed most, and how the principle of offering asylum to persecuted people is hugely important. The protection that the UK and other countries across the world have granted, and continue to grant, to refugees is something to be proud of and to value.
At a time when some European states are feeling overwhelmed by migration, and negative perceptions of the immigrants and abused asylum processes are rife, there is a risk of losing sight of the Convention and the important principles that underpin it. There is a tangled mass of economic migrants, illegal immigrants and human trafficking networks, as well as refugees fleeing persecution among them. It is important not to forget the catastrophic historical events that led to the establishment of this international law that protects some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Photo: Kindertransport girls passing through customs ©The Wiener Library