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UN: Analysis From Washington -- Protecting Those Forced To Flee

Washington, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow (28 July) marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, the basic international accord that protects the rights of those forced to flee their homelands because of persecution or conflict.

Formally adopted on 28 July 1951, the convention has been ratified by 140 countries, and currently, it is in the process of being ratified by Belarus, which will become the 141st. But many governments fail to live up to their commitments under the convention and now are openly questioning the value of refugee protection as such.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said in a statement released this week that criticism of the convention reflects the rising number of asylum seekers around the world, an increase in people-smuggling networks, the perception that most asylum seekers do not have legitimate claims, and the rising costs involved in taking care of refugees.

"These concerns are understandable," Lubbers said, "but the critique of the convention tends to ignore some vital basic factors."

First of all, he said the dramatic increase in refugees during the last decade -- there are currently 22.3 million refugees or one for every 269 people on earth -- is the product of three major wars that have forced people to flee.

Second, Lubbers continued, "the whole point of the convention is precisely to make the distinction between those who need international protection and those who do not." The convention specifies that no government should force out those who have been subject to persecution or who have a reasonable fear of persecution should they be forced to return to their countries of origin.

And third, the UN High Commissioner pointed out, the convention was never intended to be a solution for the world's migration problems which are far larger and involve far more people than do refugee flows. Confusing economic migrants with refugees, he said, is not the fault of the convention but rather of its interpretation by those who are pursuing their own political goals.

Lubbers said that "the most worrying trend [involving refugees] is the growing number of countries violating Article 33 of the convention, which says 'No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.'" The High Commissioner said it is "reprehensible" when governments do that, an action he said undermines all the other protections outlined in the convention.

Lubber's staff is currently working in two broad directions. On the one hand, it is seeking to have ever more governments accede to the convention. Over the last decade, his aides say, 11 of the post-Soviet states and all five of the states which emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia have ratified the convention. But many countries, especially in Southeast Asia and the Middle East still refuse to ratify this international undertaking.

And on the other hand, the UNHCR is working to focus international attention on the increasing number of governments that have signed the convention but are now violating its provisions. Not surprisingly, many impoverished and war-torn countries have a bad record in this regard, but some of the most economically developed democracies increasingly have refused to provide asylum to those who clearly qualify for refugee status.

All too often, refugee advocates note, government actions against refugees are politically popular. Many people in countries to which refugees now flock feel threatened either economically or culturally and respond to politicians who promise to ensure that only truly needy refugees are allowed in. And at least some governments take a hard line against those applying for refugee status lest politicians seek to exploit xenophobic attitudes.

Despite these problems, the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention on Refugees is a milestone, marking as it does the first half-century of an international commitment to protect those who can't go home again.