In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] reported that 70.8 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide (UNHCR, 2019a). Within the 70.8 million displaced, there were 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers (UNHCR, 2019a). According to the 1951 Convention for Refugees, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion (UNHCR, 2001). An asylum seeker is an individual who has fled their country of origin to seek international protection but have not received their claim decision from their new host country (International Organization for Migration [IOM], 2019). Every two seconds there will be 1 person displaced from their home due to persecution or violence (UNHCR, 2019a). UNHCR reports this to be the highest number of displaced individuals on record (UNHCR, 2019). With such prevalence, guidelines for international protection, human rights, and security have never been so important.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and The Protocol of 1967
Currently, the global protection of refugees and other forcibly displaced people are outlined in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (Turk & Dowd, 2014). According UNHCR (2019b), the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 protocol are the foundational and only legal instruments that provide guidelines surrounding displaced individual’s rights and the responsibilities of nation states to protect them.
After millions of people were displaced and resettled after WWI and WWII, many nation states attended an international diplomatic conference and signed the 1951 Convention (UNHCR, 2001). The Convention of 1951 defined the term ‘refugee’ and outlined the needs and rights of refugees (UNHCR, 2001). The Convention states that refugees should not be punished for entering countries illegally and deserve basic human rights to safety, housing, education, work, and the right to the freedom of movement (UNHCR, 2001). Additionally, the Convention provided a key revision of non-refoulement stating that “a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she fears persecution” (UNHCR, 2001). Nearly 17 years later, the 1967 protocol expanded the application of the terms, agreements, and protections of The Convention by removing the previous geographical and temporal restrictions implemented in 1951 (UNHCR, 2001). The Protocol then allowed countries to sign the Protocol and agree to the terms of the 1951 Convention without ratifying the convention itself (UNHCR, 2001). New countries could then respect the preceding principles of non-refoulement and refugee protection without being an original party member.
However, even with the Convention of 1951 and Protocol of 1967, there are still many issues and protection gaps that surround the migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The ambiguous definitions, terms, and guidelines outlined are often misinterpreted, incorrectly implemented, or disregarded by nation states. For example, asylum seekers are not overtly covered by the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol despite their obvious right to most, if not all, of the fundamental protections (Türk & Dowd, 2014). More generally, the presiding legal structure also lacks key protection frameworks to address historical challenges like protracted situations worldwide (Türk & Dowd, 2014).
Protection Gaps and Protracted Situations
One of the biggest drawbacks of the Convention and Protocol are that there are no legal ramifications or consequences for not adhering the terms of the agreement. Rather the Convention is merely grounded on international solidarity (Türk & Dowd, 2014). Within the current international framework, there is a lack of accountability and sharing of responsibilities to ensure refugee rights and protection needs are met (Türk & Dowd, 2014). With this, many countries do not adequately care or provide protection for refugees and displaced persons. Türk and Dowd (2014) identify such gaps as protection shortcomings in the current international agreement and framework. Türk and Dowd (2014) state that protection gaps take place when provisions of refugee international law do not apply to certain situations, merely do not exist, are limited in capacity, or misinterpreted to provide inadequate protection. One way this is seen is through protracted situations. A protracted situation is when a displaced person or refugee’s ability to return to their habitual residence, resettle in new host community, repatriate, or achieve other mobility opportunities is stalled for three or more years (IOM, 2019). The following provides general background information and global prevalence of protracted situations.
Prevalence and General Background of Protracted Situations
UNHCR defines protracted situations with a cruder measure by stating that such situations take place when “25,000 people or more from the same nationality remain in exile for more than five consecutive years in a given host country” (UNHCR, 2018). It is important to note that with such varied definitions the precise number of protracted situations are challenging to record and as such is a limitation. Based on the preceding definition, by the end of 2018 an estimated 15.9 million refugees lived in protracted situations worldwide (UNHCR, 2018). Regardless, existing protracted situations can last for 40 years or more causing extreme challenges for entire generations of displaced persons (UNHCR, 2018). With a malleable international legal framework, the percentage of refugees living in protracted refugee situations has significantly increased from 66% in 2017 to 78% in 2018 (UNHCR, 2018). Of the protracted situations mentioned, some situations have lasted for 20, 30, or even more than 40 years causing many challenges and hardships for generations of refugees (UNHCR, 2018). Lastly, nine new refugee situations became protracted in 2018 with more than 25,000 refugees living in exile beyond five consecutive years (UNHCR, 2018).
Extensive research shows that political impasses cause and contribute to enduring protracted refugee situations (Milner, 2011). The political actions and inactions of both host country and country of origin cause protracted refugee situations around the world (Milner, 2011). The situations persist due unresolved problems in either the host country and or country of origin (Milner, 2011). However, refugees become stuck in limbo when host countries enact common restrictions on refugee mobility, camp confinement, and educational opportunities to address large numbers of refugee arrivals (Milner, 2011). There are severe consequences to unresolved protracted situations for refugees and displaced individuals.
The first main consequence of protracted refugee situations are human rights violations (Milner, 2011). Typically, the rights of vulnerable people groups like children, women, and the elderly are disproportionately affected in periods of persistent exile (Milner, 2011). Ironically, the rights outlined in the 1951 Convention like the right to seek job opportunities, education, or freedom of mobility are not implemented in many protracted situations (Milner, 2011). For example, it is common for many host countries to confine refugees to one specific area or camp without an opportunity to leave to find work (Milner, 2011). According to Milner (2011), these restrictions increase an already vulnerable population’s susceptibility to poverty and dependence on unstable institutions.
- Türk, V. and Dowd, R. (2014). Protection gaps. In E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, G. Loescher, K. Long, & N. Sigona (Eds.). (2014). The Oxford handbook of refugee and forced migration studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199652433.013.0024
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2019a). Figures at a glance: Statistical Yearbooks. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2019b). The 1951 Refugee Convention. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/1951-refugee-convention.html
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2018). Global Trends 2018: Forced Displacement in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/5d08d7ee7.pdf
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2001). The 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/3bbdb0954.pdf
- IOM (International Organization for Migration). (2019). Glossary on migration. International Migration Law (34). Retrieved from https://publications.iom.int/books/internationalmigration-law-ndeg34-glossary-migration
- Milner, J. (2011, January). Responding to protracted refugee situations: Lessons from a decade of discussion. Refugee Studies Centre. University of Oxford. Retrieved from https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10315/8011/Milner-Responding-Brief.pdf?sequence=1