Resist betraying the Refugee Convention 65 years on

Resist betraying the Refugee Convention 65 years on, NGO Atina

On the 65th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, let's #StandAsOne with our 65 million forcibly displaced people.

The responsibility for protecting all of these vulnerable people, be they internally displaced, a refugee or an asylum seeker, needs to be shared, and fairly, writes Byanyima. Winnie Byanyima is the executive director of Oxfam International.

Our world today has one million people who have fled violence or persecution for each year the United Nations Refugee Convention has existed. The Refugee Convention was adopted in 1951 and defines who is a refugee. It outlines their rights and the legal obligations states must uphold to protect these vulnerable men, women and children. It is a convention that I and many others have benefited from.

Sixty-five years on, we have 65 million people on the move searching for safety, dignity and hope - the highest number of forcibly displaced people since records began. It is a world that is increasingly hostile to them, as menacing xenophobic and racist rhetoric grows.

Triggered in the aftermath of the two world wars, the 1951 Convention was initially to protect European refugees, but this was expanded to every nationality in 1967 as the challenge of forced displacement was seen as global. 

How ironic this history is - and what a betrayal. Currently we are faced with "Fortress Europe", where the EU trades human beings for political concessions with Turkey, and others appear to be following suit. The conflict in Syria has been a major source for the 65 million figure, but a great many others are also fleeing violence in South Sudan, Burundi, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. The 1951 Convention is for refugees who - along with asylum seekers - account for around a third of the world's 65 million forcibly displaced people. The majority of them flee to areas within their home countries.

The responsibility for protecting all of these vulnerable people, be they internally displaced, a refugee or an asylum seeker, needs to be shared, and fairly.

Flawed system

That is not happening. As Oxfam recently revealed, the world's six richest countries host fewer than 9 percent of refugees and asylum seekers: the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, many developing nations are shouldering the duty of protecting refugees: Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa and the Occupied Palestinian Territory host more than 50 percent of the world's refugees and asylum seekers, but account for fewer than 2 percent of the world's economy. 

As bleak as this is, there is potentially some hope for our brothers and sisters fleeing conflict and persecution as countries not hosting their fair share of refugees may step up. In September, US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host two summits on refugees and migrants.

The base agreement for the UN Summit is being fiercely debated now in New York. Member states are struggling to commit to changes to the status quo that would mean their sharing responsibility more equally and offering better protection for refugees, where they also assist them and the communities hosting them.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for world leaders to commit to sharing the responsibility for protecting refugees, so it is not left to a handful of poorer countries. Member states must agree on a robust framework to welcome, protect and assist refugees and follow up on individual commitments.

They too must ensure that all people on the move, independent of their status and whether they have crossed a border or not, have their rights protected and that they receive the protection and assistance they need.

The talks happening now in New York are tough and September may be tougher. But the toughest situation of all lies with those 65 million people who are searching for safety, dignity and peace every day, many fleeing violence and bloodshed. The world has changed in the 65 years since the Refugee Convention first came about, but our compassion and sense of responsibility must remain intact.

Let us stand as one with the 65 million.

Winnie Byanyima is a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, senior international public servant, world-recognised expert on women's rights, and currently the executive director of Oxfam International.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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