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Economic and Social

Topic: Rights of Refugees

History of Refugees and the United Nations

Following the end of World War II warring nations, especially in Europe saw a massive number of displaced people. Left with little recourse of their own they needed aid from outside countries. The United Nations moved to respond. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already allowed for a person to seek asylum from persecution but U.N. wanted a more definite solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees met in Geneva at the1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees sought to alleviate the problems faced by these people by granting them certain basic rights. While the 1951 Conventions dealt solely with the World War II European phenomenon and it applied only to those affected pre-1951, it was the first step in addressing the refugee dilemma. The Convention produced protocols that were updated in 1967 to encompass all refugees from anyplace.

The 1951 Convention set forth the definition of a refugee as being anyone who “owing to a 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..." - Convention Article 1A. The Convention also set forth the tenets of the rights of refugees among them being the safeguarding from expulsion or return of refugees against their will to a country where they fear they will be persecuted.

The initial result of the Protocols was success as they helped to shelter people and allowed them to resettle and rebuild their lives.

New problems have recently arisen with the explosion of wars and renewed ethnic fighting. There are refugees from every continent. As participating governments have viewed abuses of the system as well as growing costs they have displayed growing wariness and weariness of accommodating refugees from these conflagrations. So the plight of refugees is growing


•  78% of refugees come from Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, and Sudan

•  45% come from Asia

•  30% come from Africa

•  19% come from Europe

•  5% come from North America (based on 2001 numbers)

•  20,556,781 persons of concern who fall under the UNHCR mandate

Civil Wars and Displaced Peoples

Violent persecutions are on the rise in areas where groups, not necessarily governments, employ violent means in persecuting people. These persecutions have become drawn more on ethnic lines. Situations like those in Kosovo and in central African countries such as those seen in Rawanda and the Congo .

Due to the fact that the vast majority of violent conflicts throughout the world are within the boundaries of that country, i.e. civil wars, the displaced people from those conflicts do not met the full criteria of “refugee” as defined above because they are still within their borders and it is the governments of those countries to establish and maintain there protection. This becomes a difficult question. These displaced people are often living within a country with no real government and are living in serious danger. The number of displaced people still living within their countries borders is estimated to be higher then those of technical refugees, at about 40 million people to about 20 million refugees. Their plight needs immediate consideration and action.

Violence Against Women

Persecution based on sex was omitted from the Convention as it was not thought that men and women could constitute a separate group. Evidence to the contrary abounds. Women in many countries are not afforded the same legal rights as men and are singled out for inhumane treatment and suffer unequal protection.

Asylum Abuse & Human Trafficking

Patron governments of refugees have seen a large increase in the number of asylum seekers. The governments have begun to fear abuses in the system. They fear that people are not fleeing persecution but trying to get better economic opportunities, this fear is not totally unfounded. This has had two effects; real refugees are being marginalized and huge growth in human smuggling. Human trafficking has become a big business and illegal immigrants compete with legitimate refugees to gain access to a country. The methods used to smuggle people in to a country are highly dangerous.

Duties and Roles of Governments

As abuses abound, and the number of refugee claimants rise and the cost for the host nations rise many countries are attempting to limit those seeking legitimate asylum.

Many countries are making it more difficult to obtain asylum by questing the definition of “persecution”. More alarming the United States Supreme Court has even allowed for the expulsion of refugees citing that while it may go against the spirit of the Convention is does not violate its law. Such disregard will no doubt grow to be more common. Countries are within their rights as the Convention's protocols have no stipulation forcing a country to accept refugees.

Some Questions

How and when should refugees be repatriated? How can abuses be reduced? Should governments be persuaded to accept more asylum seekers? How? What role should the United Nations take in addressing internally displaced people? How should women's rights in refugee decisions be determined?

Amnesty International:


Human Rights Watch:

UNHCR: UN Refugee Agency:

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