Post-war convention on refugees buckling under current crises, says Lloyd Axworthy

Strained by unprecedented levels of displacement, the international system created to protect refugees has buckled and is failing the world’s most vulnerable people, says former minister of immigration Lloyd Axworthy.

Canada's former immigration and foreign affairs minister says hiking border security an unacceptable solution

A displaced Iraqi girl, who fled a village controlled by Islamic State militants, poses for a picture at the refugee camp in Hammam Ali, south of Mosul, Iraq, in February. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

Strained by unprecedented levels of displacement, the international system created to protect refugees has buckled and is failing the world's most vulnerable people, says Canada's former minister of immigration, Lloyd Axworthy.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, as tens of millions Europeans fled their homes and the world's worst refugee crisis was then high on the international agenda, Western powers established a set of rules to protect the inalienable rights of those displaced by war.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defined a refugee as a person fleeing conflict or persecution and obliged its signatories to offer asylum to those who qualify.

But seven decades later, with a refugee crisis of even greater magnitude unfolding, driven by scattered conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central America, those very governments have turned their backs on the principles underpinning the system they created, Axworthy told CBC News in an interview.

With governments increasingly reluctant to afford refugees the protections to which they are entitled under international law, it is necessary to "take that fundamental, irrefutable right [to asylum] and say, 'how do we translate that into a modern idiom.'"

Lloyd Axworthy, left, who was invested as Companion of the Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. David Johnston earlier this year, has been tapped to lead a new international group in search of practical solutions to the world's massive refugee crisis. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Axworthy, who also served as Canada's minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000, is taking on that challenge as the chair of the newly announced World Refugee Council. The WRC comprises a diverse group of leaders in the field of forced migration, including Liberian peace activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Leymah Gbowee, former Greek prime minister George Papandreou and the former foreign minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan.

The council is funded in part by the Canadian government, which announced this week it would give $500,000 to the initiative over two years, and will build upon the work of another Canadian, Louise Arbour, appointed in March as the UN Special Representative for International Migration to develop a "first-ever global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration."

If [Canada] really wanted to be out there on the edge making a contribution, we would start planning and preparing for the UN role in Syria in keeping the peace- Lloyd Axworthy

The WRC's goal is to find ways to overhaul the global institutional response to the waves of refugees fleeing countries such as Syria, South Sudan and the northern triangle of Central America. It is a daunting task in the face of rising xenophobia and populism.

"Part of the problem is that there are voids and vacuums. People look out and say, 'okay, we've got a large amount of people here, but nobody seems to be in control, managing it and understanding what needs to be done,'" said Axworthy. "A lot of the frustration that has been expressed in electoral terms in the last several years is [in response to] government not governing."

While U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to build a physical wall along the border of Mexico and the tightening of borders in the European Union has effectively shut off the Balkan migration route through Greece, some countries are going so far as to enter into financial agreements with countries of origin to keep refugees from reaching their borders.

In February, Italy agreed to pay $236 million to the UN-backed Libyan government to train its coast guard to intercept migrants and return them to Libya — a move criticized by human rights groups as a violation of a key part of the 1951 convention that prevents countries from returning refugees to countries where their lives are threatened or they face a risk of torture.

Obstacles such as these will not solve the crisis, said Axworthy.

Root causes of forced migration

Instead, he said, UN member states should be required to make regular contributions to the organization's security, humanitarian and development initiatives to address the root causes of emigration.

For example, he points out the UN urged donor countries this week to increase financial support for the 1.5 million people fleeing South Sudan — an emergency response plan that remains only 14 per cent funded.

A South Sudanese refugee woman, displaced by fighting, holds her child on arrival at Imvepi settlement in Arua district, northern Uganda, last month. (James Akena/Reuters)

"It's a classic case of how the system just can't cope anymore."

He said countries must also do their part to reduce conflict that drives refugees to flee their homes. Peacekeeping missions, even those that would entail significant risk, such as to Syria, must be considered.

Here, Axworthy adds, Canada could play a leadership role.

"If [Canada] really wanted to be out there on the edge making a contribution, we would start planning and preparing for the UN role in Syria in keeping the peace."

Canada also has a leadership role to play regionally, he said. Aid agencies have called the 500,000 refugees fleeing the Central America each year a humanitarian crisis on Canada's doorstep.

"It's our hemisphere, we've got to be a part of it," said Axworthy.

"You will find a lot of immigration officers in Canada who would argue that kids escaping drug cartels are not refugees."

Migrants from Honduras sit together before spending Christmas Eve at the migrant's shelter "La Lecheria" in Tultitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City. Canada is increasingly being seen as a country of destination for refugees fleeing the northern triangle of Central America. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)

While isolated geographically, Axworthy said Canada would do well to pay attention to what is — and isn't — working for those countries facing more grave refugee influxes.

His personal view is that as the Arctic melts, human smugglers will find new migration routes — possibly to Canada.

"It's one of the most unpatrolled, uncontrollable places, and you can't build a fence around the Arctic, even if you tried."