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Is the Geneva Refugee Convention living up to the times?

Hamdo Deepma’s passion is to protect human rights. He has been committed to it every day ever since he fled politically motivated violence in his home country of Burkina Faso.

Twenty years ago, as a young student, Dipama joined the protests against the dictatorship of Blaise Compaore, who ruled Bukina Faso for 27 years until she was swept from power after a popular uprising in 2014.

Dipama eventually ended up in Munich, the regional capital of Bavaria in southern Germany.

“When I was on the run, I didn’t know about the Geneva Refugee Convention,” Deepma told DW in an interview. “It’s not something that is talked about in the Global South; people there know very little about it.”

‘Why don’t I get protection?’

But when they arrived in Europe, Dipma was faced with the realities of convention and how it provided shelter for some – but not others.

“Why do some people get protection and I don’t, even though I could demonstrate everything I could about my position in Burkina Faso?” Dipma said, who had a permit to “tolerant stay” for his first nine years in Germany.

This prevented them from getting regular employment, moving freely within the country and accessing most of the welfare programmes.

Refugees get rights

The Geneva Refugee Convention (formally known as the “Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees”) is an essential premise of international refugee protection.

It defines who is a refugee and what rights and obligations they have. According to the original words, people are entitled to refugee status because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

After World War II and to counter the growing political tensions between East and West, the United Nations adopted the convention in Geneva in 1951.

Initially, it was mainly limited to protecting European refugees immediately after World War II. To reflect the changing situation around the world, a 1967 Protocol expanded the scope of the convention.

Some 149 states have signed one or both of the conventions.

major treaty

The Refugee Convention still plays an important role today: it is the only document obliging states to provide protection to refugees, said Susan Fratzke, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels.

Today, however, people are forced to leave their homes for different reasons than in the Cold War situation, she said: governments are failing, rival groups are fighting for power, economies in home countries are collapsing. and cannot feed their families. .

“None of these are involved in [convention]. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. We have to think ahead and be more creative to meet people’s needs,” Fratzke told DW.

Even 30 years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicated an awareness that people had new motivations to flee, such as the harsh economic conditions in their home region.

In a 1991 DW interview, then Deputy High Commissioner Douglas Stafford said, “These people are not running away from persecution but in the hope of a better life.” “We have to be very careful in the future about how we address the problems of economic migrants.”

But even after 30 years, leaving home for economic reasons is not a norm under the Convention.

Host countries in Africa lack resources

Today, almost every African country has signed the Refugee Convention and for decades, many African countries have hosted the largest number of refugees in the world.

Many African states went “one step further”, by adopting the Refugee Convention, the predecessor organization of the African Union – the Organization for African Unity. In doing so, the signatories grant legal rights to refugees who are not included in the Geneva Refugee Convention.

Abiy Ashenafi, head of the migration unit at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, also thinks that the OAU agreement addresses some of the shortcomings of the overly narrow definition of “refugee” in the Geneva Convention.

However, both experts see a problem with implementation: many African countries housing refugees lack resources and are themselves vulnerable nations with economic difficulties.

little political will

The Geneva Refugee Convention falls short of its potential. One problem is the lack of binding obligations to share responsibility, says migration expert Abiy Ashenafi, who believes the convention could be reformed to include it.

It also fails to provide a grievance mechanism for refugees against host states, he wrote in an email to DW.

Another issue, according to Fratzke, is that the convention is not an executive body. Each signatory must ensure its commitment to the Convention through appropriate asylum laws in the home country.

The problem, she says, is that many states are “unwilling or unable” to do so.

“As a result, it is difficult for refugees to obtain protection, even though they are entitled to it under the convention.”

Honor and renew the current convention

Back in Munich, Burkina Faso’s Hamado Dipama criticized how host countries deal with refugees, which often deviates from the convention.

Deportation is questionable, for example when well-integrated refugees are deported back to unstable home countries, said Dipma, who has been a spokeswoman for the Bavarian Refugee Council since 2007.

Dipama personally experienced the fear of deportation from her time as a “tolerant” refugee. In 2014, he finally received a “settlement permit” which gave him further rights.

A month ago, Deepma applied for German citizenship – which was not an easy step, he said, as it meant giving up his Burkinabe passport.

What might the refugee convention look like in the future?

“We don’t have any big questions.” Deepa said. “States should do what they signed into the convention, and amend the document so that refugees from countries with today’s problems have greater protection.”

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