The Sunday Magazine

Can we rewrite the 1951 Refugee Convention for the 21st century?

Alexander Betts, professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford, discusses whether it's possible to rewrite the 1951 UN Refugee Convention for the 21st century to include those fleeing climate change, failed states and generalised violence.
Rohingya refugee children shelter from the rain at Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhia on July 20, 2018. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)

The UN Refugee Convention was written in 1951 and still governs who qualifies for refugee status today.

It defines a refugee as someone who has fled their country because of a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Over the decades, that definition has more or less remained constant, but the major drivers of forced migration have changed dramatically.

By the end of this century, as many as 2 billion people could be displaced by climate change - but they don't meet the current legal definition of "refugee."

Some, like Tongan MP Lord Fusitu'a, argue the convention must be updated to give people displaced by climate change the same rights and protections as those fleeing persecution.

The Sunday Edition's guest host Nahlah Ayed speaks with Alexander Betts about the complicated history of who counts as a refugee, and whether the Refugee Convention can be rewritten for the 21st century.

Betts is a professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford. He has worked for the UN High Commission on Refugees and as a consultant for the International Organization for Migration. His books include Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement and Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System.

This transcript is a partial excerpt and has been edited for brevity. To hear the full interview with Alexander Betts, click 'listen' above.

Nahlah Ayed: What were the drafters of the convention trying to accomplish, back in 1951?

Alexander Betts: The convention is a product of its time and geography. It was created for post Second World War Europe. Millions had been displaced in the aftermath of the Second World War, and Europeans were very conscious of a 'Never Again' mentality. In the early years of the Cold War, there were new movements from east to west, and the idea was to protect people whose governments were out to get them.

People are fleeing generalized conflict and violence ... rather than that individualized persecuting regime.- Alexander Betts

The '51 Convention defines a refugee as a person with a well-founded fear of persecution, based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion. The idea of persecution is kind of the image of a Russian intellectual in St. Petersburg who can't survive under communism and is voting with their feet, moving east to west.

The convention was initially for Europe. It wasn't until the late 60s that it was actually expanded to the rest of the world. So the image we have of that moment, protecting people whose governments were out to get them, is a different world from the one we're in today.

Displaced Syrians carry boxes of humanitarian aid from UNICEF at a refugee camp in Syria's northeastern Hassakeh province on February 26, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, that's not the image that defines most refugee movements. Most refugees are fleeing fragile states like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan. People are fleeing generalized conflict and violence ... rather than that individualized persecuting regime.

NA: When you look at the landscape today, what are the major forces behind [forced migration in] such incredible numbers of people, the likes of which we haven't seen before?

AB: The drivers of displacement have fundamentally changed. Sixty eight percent of the world's refugees come from just five countries and they are all chronically fragile, weak states.

In the context of climate change and environmental displacement, those numbers are going to increase and the problem is that courts and bureaucrats around the world are being forced to shoehorn contemporary circumstances into an old anachronistic definition.

The convention should be maintained because if we tried to renegotiate it we'd get a far worse deal for refugees today than we've had in the past.- Alexander Betts

What that's leading to is a whole variation in outcomes. It makes it a complete lottery, who gets refugee status and who doesn't. For instance, if you're an Eritrean refugee ... you have about an 100 percent chance of getting refugee status if you go to Sweden, but less than a 30 percent chance of getting status in France.

Now, crucially that's not an argument to dispense with the convention. The convention should be maintained because if we tried to renegotiate it we'd get a far worse deal for refugees today than we've had in the past.

But it does mean it's inadequate. It does mean the system is increasingly broken and we need to supplement it with potentially new additional agreements for new populations like those displaced by climate change.

NA: What do you say to officials from the Kingdom of Tonga, for example, where they strongly believe, first, that the world has an obligation to protect them after causing the climate change that's swallowing their homes — but also that they should be considered as much refugees are those fleeing persecution?

AB: Climate change is real and it has significant consequences for displacement and migration. It has a range of effects and a range of consequences from rapid onset crises like disappearing islands ... to the other end of the spectrum where you have slow onset changes like desertification, etc.

Across that spectrum, we have to provide solutions. For low-lying islands in the Pacific, there's a clear issue of international justice. Those countries that have created climate change have obligations not just to support mitigation and adaptation, but to provide homelands to those communities that have been displaced. And this is an area that I think has been neglected in the climate change negotiations, [and] is being neglected in the current Global Compact on Refugees and Migration.

Flooding caused by high ocean tides in low-lying parts of Majuro Atoll, the capital of the Marshall Islands, on February 20, 2011. Most of the islands are less than two metres above sea level and many Marshallese have migrated to other countries because of rising sea levels. How Toronto will need to prepare for an influx of 'climate change migrants' will be a topic explored at CRAM next month. (GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images)

NA: In this political environment, how supportive do you think the average citizen of Europe or North America is of [the convention]?

AB: For much of the first 68 years of the 1951 convention's life, there was almost a taboo against politicians questioning [its] relevance. That too has been shattered. And today more and more populist politicians around the world are prepared to openly defy the '51 Convention.

We've reached a tipping point, and I think citizens are more concerned in many cases with having managed migration and holding their governments accountable on controlling borders than they are with seeing their countries as civilised ambassadors for international human rights norms. So I'm very worried that reconciling democracy with political support for the 1951 Convention is at its most difficult level in the last 68 years.

As one of my colleagues said, I think slightly facetiously, international treaties are rather like fairies. If you stop believing in them, they risk disappearing.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.