When is a refugee not a refugee? - Refugee Council
June 26, 2008

When is a refugee not a refugee?

By Sile, International Protection Policy team

Well, strictly speaking, when their claim for asylum does not meet one of the criteria set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This international treaty sets out criteria under which you can claim asylum: “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. 

So, what do we do with all those people who are forced to flee their country of origin because life has become unbearable due to extreme poverty and environmental problems?  Can they be considered refugees of hunger or climate change?  Should we add new criteria to the 1951 Convention to include these new groups? 

These were just some of the questions raised by António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, when he delivered the 2008 International Rescue Committee annual lecture last week.  He argued that we must do something for those who are forced to migrate for reasons not covered by the 1951 Convention.  He explained that poverty and environmental damage can cause social unrest and widespread conflict, which can, in turn, result in persecution.  However, he argued against changing the 1951 Convention – as this would risk it being diluted. 

Interestingly, he suggested a ‘parallel instrument’ – a similar but different mechanism – to deal with those who are not covered by the 1951 Convention, although he did not elaborate on how this would function or what it would mean for the scores of Zimbabweans, Iraqis and Afghans who have been refused asylum in the UK. 

And finally, on the question of how asylum seekers get to Europe, Mr Gutturres called for EU-wide cooperation and said that ‘protection-sensitive borders’ were a real possibility.  This is certainly music to our ears, given what we found out in Turkey recently!  Hopefully this is a message that he is taking to the leaders of EU Member States, most notably the UK, who seem happy to ‘go it alone’ in the development of increasingly impenetrable borders.