The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is celebrating its 70th anniversary. However, there is little to celebrate as the promise of effective protection for refugees is often not kept. It is more important than ever to bring the importance of the Geneva Convention back to the attention of policy makers.
People flee their homelands for various reasons. Natural disasters, violent conflicts, persecution or well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, belonging to a certain social group or political opinion, cause people to flee their countries. They often leave all their property, culture and social relations behind. In such cases, refugee law determines the situations in which other states are obliged to grant a refugee protection status.
The main international convention for the protection of refugees is the 1951 Geneva Convention, which sets out the requirements for a refugee status. Asylum law protects people who are at risk of persecution in their home countries. Host countries are obliged to grant asylum and are prohibited from expelling or returning a person to a country where his or her life or freedom is seriously threatened. This principle of non-refoulement is the foundation of the Geneva Convention. The text also defines the fundamental rights of refugees such as the right of access to education or the right to housing.
70 years after its ratification, the Convention is in a difficult state as many nations pay only lip service to the spirit of the Convention. Today, these relevant legal achievements are often undermined by a European migration policy that places greater emphasis on border management at the expense of the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The needs of people in distress are often relegated to the background at the expense of internal security. Currently, the "push-backs" or illegal deportations of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean demonstrate a policy of deterrence that violates the rights of these people. Even if, on paper, the protection of refugees is formally guaranteed, people are actively prevented from reaching the European shores and cannot exercise their right to an asylum procedure. As a result, in these countries, the right to asylum has only a secondary role, that of a rhetorical reference and a showcase that promotes human values.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, it is the implementation of the Convention that hinders real protection for refugees. Although all North African countries have ratified the Convention, they do not have their own asylum system. In Tunisia, the right to asylum is even enshrined in the constitution. However, a legal framework is lacking as the national law on asylum is still pending. As a result, refugee status can only be obtained in Tunisia from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There is no national authority that can systematically grant refugee status to potential beneficiaries. Because of these shortcomings, the registration of asylum applications is often delayed. Refugees who are recognized by the UNHCR do not have access to a residence permit due to the lack of closer coordination between the UNHCR and the national authorities. This implies that their situation is quite particular. On the one hand, they are tolerated on the territory and protected against refoulement, but on the other hand, from an administrative point of view, they are in an irregular situation and hardly ever have any formal contracts (in order to gain access to a formal job, be able to sign a rental contract, ...). They can neither open bank accounts nor benefit from social security coverage.
These different practices put many people in very vulnerable situations and show that the spirit of the Convention must be lived by a real implementation of its principles. Political decision-makers in Tunisia and elsewhere must be reminded of the commitments arising from the Geneva Convention. Its 70th anniversary should be an incitement to engage in a sustainable, reliable and effective way for a better protection of refugees in the world. On this occasion, our foundation has published several short video statements by people from different backgrounds - artists, refugee academics, activists - expressing their support for the principles of the Convention. To see all of these statements, click here.