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The UN Refugee Convention 60 Years On – Time to Rethink Approaches to Protection?

Date:25 April 2014
Author:Religion Factor
A view of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, from August 2013. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accessed via Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v1.0
A view of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, from August 2013. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accessed via Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v1.0

This week marks the 60thanniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Much has changed since the Convention was initially drafted, signed and ratified by states. Increasing globalization, more and more diverse causes of flight and situations requiring protection that often do not fit the strict guidelines laid out by the Convention are contributing to a growing number of people falling outside the formal channels for protection currently offered by the international states-system. Is there a need to rethink protection beyond the boundaries of the nation-state? What would this look like and who should be involved? Erin Wilson and Luca Mavelli consider these and other issues in the lead up to a British Council-funded workshop being held in Washington D.C. next week on “Addressing the Asylum Crisis: Religious Contributions to Rethinking Protection in Global Politics”.

In mid-2013, the global population of UNHCR persons of concern reached an all-time high of 38.7 million, having risen by 3 million in the space of just six months.[1] Figures for the second half of 2013 have yet to be released, but the UNHCR predicted they would be even higher than those of the first six months. This dramatic rise has been due to multiple refugee crises, most notably those in Syria, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of ongoing conflict and violence.

While many countries provide protection, the majority of the burden is borne by developing countries. The below list provides the top ten countries hosting refugees according to the UNHCR Mid-Year Trends report, with their global GDP ranking for 2012 from the World Bank.[2]

Top Ten Refugee hosting countries

  1. Pakistan (44th highest GDP)
  2. Iran (21st highest GDP)
  3. Jordan (91st by GDP)
  4. Lebanon (82nd by GDP)
  5. Kenya (86th by GDP)
  6. Turkey (17th by GDP)
  7. Chad (123rd by GDP)
  8. Ethiopia (84th by GDP)
  9. China (2nd by GDP)
  10. United States (1st by GDP)

Not one European country is amongst the top ten refugee hosting countries.

The practical implications of this are that millions of people exist daily in situations that may be removed from direct persecution and conflict but are far from secure. Refugee camps are in general over-crowded, with inadequate access to food, water, sanitation, health care and education.[3] Rape and assault are common.[4] The average length of time a person may spend in a refugee camp is 17 years.[5]

Yet it is not just the increase in the global refugee population that is contributing to the sense of crisis and tension in global protection mechanisms. Part of the problem is also that the reasons why people need protection are increasingly complex and diverse. The Refugee Convention focuses primarily on individual persecution as the basis for granting refugee status. A refugee is defined as a person who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.[6]

However, in the contemporary global context, the reasons why people require protection are much more complex. They include conflict and violence, environmental destruction and disease pandemics.[7] Under the Refugee Convention, however, countries do not have to acknowledge conflict, widespread indiscriminate violence, disease or environmental destruction as legitimate reasons why people may need protection.[8] This means that the numbers of displaced persons who will not be granted refugee status are likely to increase even further in the coming years.

At the same time as we have seen this all-time high in the numbers of displaced persons, there is also an increasing emphasis by developed states on restricting the number of persons to whom they owe protection. In the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, Australia and a host of other global North countries, governments of both left and right have introduced increasingly strict asylum policies in an effort to deter asylum seekers and reduce the number of refugees they accept.[9] These factors combined amount to a failure in global protection and is particularly acute in a global context where individuals are still overwhelmingly only able to access their rights through membership of a state.[10] As such, it is not an overstatement to suggest that dominant state-based modes for asylum and protection are in crisis the world over.[11] A major rethink of international legal frameworks and pathways to protection would thus seem to be both urgent and necessary.

There are multiple different ways to begin rethinking approaches to protection that can expand current frameworks beyond their emphasis on the power of the state and recognizing the complex reasons why people flee. These include expanding our focus from the state to include other actors in the global system, such as cities, corporations, NGOs and faith-based actors. It also includes broadening the philosophical and moral frameworks through which we think about international protection from the post-World War Two, predominantly secular and state-focused lens to take other value-systems and philosophies into consideration.

Religious actors have emerged as major providers of services for asylum seekers and those who have not received refugee status, as well as significant campaigners for alternative modes of protection and belonging.[12] While persecution on the basis of religion is often one of the factors leading people to seek protection through asylum,[13] faith-based groups are also an increasingly important part of asylum and protection mechanisms. Their activities draw on rich traditions and histories of providing sanctuary and asylum to foreigners, strangers and outcasts.[14] In this context, dialogue amongst scholars, policy makers and practitioners across areas such as religion, migration, development and foreign policy is urgently needed in an effort to develop alternative approaches to protection and belonging.

Next week, the University of Kent, University of Groningen and Georgetown University will host a workshop on 1-2 May bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars, policy makers and practitioners to discuss these developments. The workshop is the first of two transatlantic seminars funded by the British Council Bridging Voices Program focusing on the current and potential future contribution of religious groups to addressing the asylum crisis and the development of short-, medium- and long-term policy strategies and to develop complements to current modes of protection and asylum. The second workshop is being held in Brussels, 26-27 June. We focus particularly on faith-based frameworks and actors as one possible avenue through which to begin rethinking global protection, owing to their long history of involvement with the sector and the growing interest in their work from governments and the UNHCR.[15]

The seminars will involve open debate and discussion amongst participants on the following four themes:

  1. The main challenges facing the international protection regime at present, including the apparent increase in factors contributing to flight that fall outside the Refugee Convention, such as increasing environmental damage caused by climate change, entrenched poverty and inequality and widespread indiscriminate violence
  2. The current role of faith-based organisations in the international protection regime, such as their provision of immediate relief in refugee camps, working in partnership with the UNHCR, assisting newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees to adjust to life in their country of resettlement and their growing role as advocates on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees in challenging and resisting harsh exclusionary policies of nation-states.
  3. The opportunities available for greater collaboration across religious and secular organisations to best meet the needs of individuals and communities most in need of protection
  4. The possibilities that exist for moving beyond the focus on the state as the primary provider of protection. This includes consideration of the role of cities as increasingly important actors in their own right in the international system, the role and responsibility of multi-national corporations in the protection process, many of whom have larger annual incomes than the nation-states that currently bear the brunt of providing protection to the majority of the world’s displaced persons.

As part of the discussion, participants will explore how the growing prominence of religion in public life and the emergence of postsecularism encourages a reconceptualization of political community, since it highlights the limitations of secular political reason and debate.[16] A postsecular approach to asylum moves away from the assumption that exclusively immanent secular frameworks offer the best possibilities of protection, justice and inclusion. Accordingly, participants will consider how theories and practices of political belonging can be enriched through engagement with religious traditions, in an effort to develop alternative ways in which individuals and communities can access their rights beyond the limitations of the current emphasis on the state. We will also consider the possibilities that exist for burden-sharing in the protection regime not just across nation-states, but across different actors, including faith-based actors, but also multinational corporations, global cities and other actors gaining significance. The conversations promise to be exciting, innovative and insightful. It is hoped it will open up avenues for future conversations where other alternative approaches and avenues for rethinking protection can be explored. We look forward to sharing their outcomes with you in future posts.

The British Council funded workshops “Addressing the Asylum Crisis: Religious Contributions to Rethinking Global Protection” will take place in Washington D.C. 1-2 May at Georgetown University and in Brussels 26-27 June at the University of Kent in Brussels. For both events, the second day (2 May and 27 June) is open to the public. If you are interested in attending, or for further information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. Email: e.k.wilson

Luca Mavelli is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent. Email l.mavelli

[1] UNHCR 2013.  UNHCR Mid-Year Trends 2013 . Available at p6

[2] List of refugee hosting countries provided in UNHCR Mid-Year Trends report (ibid). GDP Rankings from the World Bank available at

[3] See, for example, ;

[4] ; Farmer, Alice. 2006. “Refugee Responses, State-like Behavior, and Accountability for Human Rights Violations: A Case Study of Sexual Violence in Guinea’s Refugee Camps”  Yale Human Rights and Development Journal , 9(1), p45-46


[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951/1967) Available at 27 April, 2010, p16

[7] A. Betts, ‘Survival Migration: A New Protection Framework’  Global Governance  (2010) forthcoming; E. Feller, ‘The Responsibility to Protect: Closing the Gaps in the International Protection Regime’ in J. McAdam (ed).  Forced Migration, Human Rights and Security , Oxford: Hart Publishing (2008), p285

[8] Regional conventions such as the 1969 Organisation for African Unity Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Convention do acknowledge generalised violence as a reason for flight, these are both regional conventions. Whilst these conventions do set a precedent, there is nothing binding in international law for states who have not signed these regional agreements. The focus on individualised persecution also ignores other factors influencing flight, including natural disasters, poverty, disease pandemics and famine. States and international institutions still predominantly classify people who have crossed international borders as either refugees or as economic migrants, when the reality is far less clear. The Cartagena Declaration, (1984), p36 is available at 2 June 2010; The OAU Convention refers specifically to ‘external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order’ (1969), p3 Available at Accessed 6 September 2010 While the general spirit of these conventions is adopted by the UNHCR in practice elsewhere, there is no specific clause within international treaties relating to refugee law that explicitly discusses generalised violence, meaning that states which have not signed either the Cartagena or OAU Conventions do not have to recognise generalised violence as a legitimate cause for flight. This may appear to be ‘splitting hairs’, so to speak, but in an age where states are trying ever more fervently to restrict who is eligible for protection and who is not, this would seem to be an important point.

[9]M. Welch and Liza Schuster, ‘Detention of Asylum Seekers in the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy: A critical view of the globalizing culture of control’  Criminal Justice  Vol. 5, No. 4, (2005), p331-2; Barlow, Karen and staff, 2013. “Parliament excises mainland from migration zone”  ABC News  16 May 2013. Available at (accessed 16 May 2013).; Wilson, Erin K. 2013a. “What it means to value life: the role of religions in global asylum and protection”  Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion and Ethics . 7 June 2013. Available at June 7, 2013)

[10]Arendt, Hannah. 1958.  The Origins of Totalitarianism . London: Allen and Unwin, 268-9

[11]Squire, Vicki and Jonathan Darling. 2013. “The ‘Minor’ Politics of Rightful Presence: Justice and Relationality in  City of Sanctuary ”  International Political Sociology  7(1), p59

[12]Levitt, Peggy, 2007.  God Needs No Passport , The New Press; Walker, Peter, Dyan Mazurana, Amy Warren, George Scarlett, and Henry Louis. 2012. “The role of spirituality in Humanitarian Crisis and Recovery” in Barnet, Michael and Janice Gross Stein. (eds).  Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism . Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp115-139; E.K. Wilson. 2011. “Much to be proud of, much to be done: Faith-based organisations and the Politics of Asylum in Australia”  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 550-564; E.K. Wilson. 2013. “Be Welcome: Religion, Hospitality and Statelessness in International Politics” in Baker, Gideon (ed).  Hospitality and World Politics . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp145-170

[13]Gozdziak, E. M. and Shandy, D. J. (eds) (2002) ‘Special Issue: Religion and Spirituality in Forced Migration’. Journal of Refugee Studies 15(2): 129-135

[14]Bretherton, Luke. 2006.  Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity . Farnham: Ashgate; Bretheron, Luke. 2010.  Christianity in Contemporary Politics . London: Wiley-Blackwell; Marfleet, Philip. 2011. “Understanding Sanctuary: Faith and Traditions of Asylum”  Journal of Refugee Studies  24(3): 440-455


[16]Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. “Religion in the Public Sphere”  European Journal of Philosophy  14(1): 1-25; Mavelli, Luca and Fabio Petito. 2012. “The postsecular in International Relations: an overview”  Review of International Studies  38(5): 931-942


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