The problems faced by asylum-seekers and refugees must, inevitably, be looked at from an international perspective. When conflict or persecution occurs in one country, the global community assumes responsibility for ensuring that civilians are offered a safe haven.
As the Second World War drew to a close the world became aware of the atrocities which had been committed against millions of innocent men, women and children. The United Nations strove to document the fundamental rights and freedoms common to all people. An obligation was placed on nation states to uphold these rights and freedoms – not just for their own citizens but for people all over the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a direct response to the grotesque crimes against humanity committed during the Second World War. It sets out in bold and impassioned terms the fundamental rights and freedoms regarded as being common to all people, in all countries regardless of any differences such as race, nationality, religion or gender. The rights enshrined in the Declaration include the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.
Article 14 of the Declaration states that all people have the right “to seek and to enjoy” asylum from persecution in other countries. Whilst the Declaration in itself does not represent binding international law it acts as a constant reminder to governments around the world of the humanitarian standards they should uphold. Further, it formed the basis for two Covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both of these were adopted by the UN’s General Assembly in 1966 and came into force in 1976. These Covenants set out the legal obligation of all signatory nations to uphold human rights.
The United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees
The UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is born out of and gives effect to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As originally drafted, the Convention was specifically intended to address the problem of those who became refugees as a result of war in Europe. However, the Convention was amended in 1967 to remove this restriction and make it applicable to those fleeing persecution throughout the world.
The UN Convention on Refugees sets out at Article 1 a detailed definition of the word refugee – explaining to whom the term should be applied for the purposes of the Convention. The Convention emphasises the need for countries to grant asylum to refugees but also recognises that this duty can place a disproportionately high burden on some countries.
The Convention encourages states to afford refugees the same rights and freedoms that their own nationals enjoy and to apply the Articles of the Convention without prejudice or discrimination. (Article 2 of the Convention reminds refugees of their responsibility to uphold the laws of any country in which they seek refuge.)
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Since 1950 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Office he or she heads, has had overall responsibility for ensuring that the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers around the world are respected. The High Commissioner is appointed by the UN General Assembly and reports every year to the Assembly and the Economic and Social Council on the work carried out by the Office. Whilst the headquarters of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees is based in Geneva they have operations and staff in countries all over the world.
An asylum-seeker is an individual who has claimed refugee status but whose claim has not yet been officially decided. The High Commissioner for Refugees recognises that states should have in place an effective and efficient system for assessing and deciding asylum applications. An efficient system means that genuine refugees can be given the help and protection to which they are entitled and that non-refugees may be returned to their country of origin.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees also works to ensure that international programmes to improve the welfare of people around the world are applied equally to those with refugee status.
The Geneva Conventions
The Geneva Convention was originally a set of 10 universal rules on the conduct of war agreed by different countries during the 1860s. Over the years various Geneva Conventions and Protocols were introduced to maintain a universal standard for acceptable behaviour during war. Whilst the Geneva Convention originally dealt with the welfare of combatants, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which came into force in 1950, focused on the protection of civilians during times of war.