Moral confusion and the 1951 Refugee Convention

Adrienne Millbank
19 April 2016

As is obvious from the continuing chaos and confusion in Europe, the 1.5 million ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ who arrived in 2015 and the first three months of 2016 did not come under any coherent migration or refugee policy or program. They came, as The Guardian (UK) informed its readers, ‘to secure rights they are entitled to under the 1951 Refugee Convention’. They came after Europe’s external border controls and internal regulations broke down and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that asylum seekers banked up in Hungary would be welcome in her country.

The countries of ‘Fortress Europe’ did not lift visa restrictions or carrier sanctions designed to keep out people from conflict-ridden and impoverished countries. The refugee convention obliges signatory countries to examine the claims for protection from persecution of every individual who gets through their borders; it doesn’t oblige them to provide legal entry or safe passage. Nearly 4,000 people drowned en-route to Europe in 2015, most in the Aegean, between Turkey and Greece.

The ‘migrant’ crisis in Europe has provided a vivid and dramatic display of the problems and moral confusion at the core of the asylum system. It skews the refugee effort. It is used as a migration channel. It confers advantage on those with the resources to move to wealthier countries. It encourages people to risk their and their families’ lives. It diverts attention from more needy refugees and displaced people. It is impossible to administer with integrity (acceptance rates vary wildly and rejected claimants fail to leave). The asylum process lacks credibility with the broader public, yet is a constant source of tension between government and advocacy groups.

That the 65-year-old treaty is no longer working in the interests of the world’s refugees or receiving countries is now obvious. Germany’s 1.1 million and Sweden’s 200,000 asylum seekers made no difference to the UNHCR estimate, made mid-year, of 60 million refugees and displaced people by the end of 2015. The cost to Germany alone in 2015 of ‘housing, feeding, educating and administering’ its asylum seekers has been estimated at €21 billion (USD 22.6 billion). The UNHCR budget for 2015, to support the world’s 60 million refugees, was USD 7 billion. The German government has acknowledged that 60 per cent of the asylum seekers it welcomed in 2015 will be found not to be refugees and will be required to go home. Such assurances have little public credibility; no European country has in previous years removed more than a fraction of its failed asylum seekers.

Angela Merkel was named Person of the Year by Time magazine, in part for her moral leadership in declaring that the right to asylum ‘has no upper limit’. But the refugee convention only ‘worked’ over the preceding 24 years in Germany precisely because numbers had been kept down through visa and other border controls and deterrents. Germany’s ‘refugee’ credentials have been courtesy of the EU’s institutionalised hypocrisy.

Time magazine was not interested in investigating the cruel ‘Hunger Games’ type of dystopia involved in welcoming asylum seekers as they arrived in Berlin—only after they had paid thousands of Euros to people smugglers, survived hazardous boat trips, trudged through cold and mud, and pushed through barbed wire and humiliation in countries where their presence was resented. Nor was it interested in interrogating the unfairness of a refugee system that bestows enticing rewards—residence in a stable, wealthy country—on the relative few (mostly young men) who are mobile and able to pay the hefty price of ‘undocumented’ entry, while those refugees most in need of help remain stuck in their own countries or marooned in poverty and camps in neighbouring countries. Surely Europe and the rest of the international community can develop a more morally coherent refugee system.

What such a system would look like has become clear. It would be based on the right of people not to be driven from their homes, and the right of return, rather than notions of permanent exile. It would sanction refugee-creating governments. It would provide more comprehensive aid to those who stay, and preserve resettlement places for the most vulnerable of refugees. It would create safe zones within and close to conflict-ridden countries, where education and skills training could continue. It would keep refugees as close to their homes as possible, so that they can return and rebuild. It would create economic and employment prospects for refugees within their regions through investment and trade concessions.

For much of 2015 the EU seemed paralysed by its own rules and processes and the commitment that Germany and Sweden in particular maintained to the refugee convention. By March 2016 internal borders along the Balkans route to these countries had been closed, and a €6 billion deal negotiated with Turkey, whereby people-smuggled asylum seekers will be exchanged for an equal number of Syrian refugees for resettlement. And the EU had joined Australia in being criticised for violating the terms and reneging on the obligations of the refugee convention

The general mood in Australia would seem to be relief that the boats have been stopped since 2013. Both major political parties are aware of the domestic political dangers in using the refugee convention as a mechanism through which to exhibit supposedly superior values of global humanitarianism. Indeed, both parties are aware of the pitfalls in pretending to use it as a mechanism through which to administer a refugee policy that makes sense and is acceptable to the broader public. In view of the object lesson still playing out, any policy retreat that risks the return of boat arrivals to Australia’s shores is unthinkable.

Politicians in Europe, where the refugee convention was born and where it has received its fullest and most generous interpretation, are now calling for it to be reformed or scrapped. Australia’s Prime Minister should apply his innovative mindset to how Australia might galvanize discussions around the development of a new refugee agreement.

To read the full report go to