Protecting People Forced to Flee - The Geneva Refugee Convention turns 70

Interview with Filippo Grandi (UNHCR) about the right to asylum

On the Convention’s 70th anniversary, we speak with Filippo Grandi (UNHCR) about the right to asylum and Europe’s role and responsibilities. 

FES: High Commissioner, today we celebrate 70 years of the 1951 Convention. Before the 1967 Protocol, the Convention’s geographical scope was limited to Europe. Within Europe, the narrative that migration and asylum is mainly a European issue gains traction once more. What do you reply to this?

There are more than 82 million people in the world today who have been subjected to unthinkable and indescribable violence, persecution, and human rights violations that have forced them to flee their homes just to stay alive. Almost all stay as close to their places of origin as possible, hoping that the situation improves so they can return to where they are from and resume their lives. Think of Syrians in Turkey, Venezuelans in Colombia, and Afghans in Pakistan. 

Overall, nearly 90% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. So, despite the rhetoric by some European politicians, the numbers tell a very different story. The bulk are not in the wealthy industrialised world and of those that do arrive in Europe today, the numbers are certainly manageable if States work together.

How do you see Europe’s and in particular Germany’s role and relevance with regards to asylum and refugee protection worldwide?

How Europe chooses to protect asylum-seekers and refugees matters and has an impact beyond its borders. As a committed European, I want Europe to live by our ideals and our rhetoric and lead by example. 

Germany plays an increasingly important role in this regard as a large host country of refugees and a global player. It has stepped up to its international protection obligations not only at home, but also helped others do that around the world by being one of the most generous and crucial humanitarian donors. It therefore has very strong credibility—its examples ensure that host countries with less resources know they will not be left alone to deal with the humanitarian and development needs of refugees and those of their communities as they can count on Germany to help.

On the other hand, when low- and middle-income countries—which host the vast majority of the displaced—see European countries shutting their borders, building fences, pushing people back, or outsourcing their asylum obligations, they ask why they should receive far more refugees while having far fewer resources than European countries. 

What can I say to Lebanon (where one in five people is a refugee), to Uganda (hosting more than 1.4 million refugees), to Bangladesh (with nearly 900,000 Rohingya from Myanmar)? That they need to live up to their international responsibilities while Europe—with more resources and fewer displaced people—turns its back?

The 1951 Convention addresses the right to asylum as crucial instrument to protect refugees. Why is this instrument important? 

Granting asylum is a basic humanitarian act that saves the life of a person in danger. It means that if someone is not safe in their home country, they must be protected in another. It also means that they cannot be pushed back (‘refoulement’), directly or indirectly, into a situation where their life is at risk. While the 1951 Convention adopted a universally applicable refugee definition, the granting of asylum is an ancient tradition practiced by peoples around the world. Since 1951, other regional refugee and international human rights instruments have further embedded the principle of non-refoulement which is now considered customary international law.

One of the newer instruments in responding to refugee protection is the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. What is new about it?

The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees helps provide a framework to modernise the way we respond to refugee movements by bringing on board new actors including academia and the private sector, and developing new tools and approaches. It also, importantly, recognizes the need to support not only refugees but also the countries and communities that host them. This means a more joined up approach that includes both immediate humanitarian and lifesaving support (like food and medicine), and development interventions (like education and job opportunities). The inclusion of the displaced in their new communities—and the resources to help host countries and communities do that—is an important form of protection.

In contradiction to this new holistic approach towards refugee protection, reports on human rights violations, such as pushbacks and pullbacks make the recent headlines. What are the impacts of such violations on the principle of asylum and the protection of human rights?

Seeking asylum is not a crime. It is a fundamental human right and must be respected by states. No matter what the situation, states cannot put people’s lives at risk by preventing them from seeking asylum or pushing them back. Full stop. And people should certainly not be prosecuted for trying to seek asylum, no matter how they reach the border!

While pushbacks are unlikely to serve as a deterrent, they will continue to force desperate people into ever more precarious circumstances, and likely result in further suffering and death, especially when done at sea. 

Our staff has interviewed hundreds of people pushed back after crossing European borders and many appeared deeply affected by this harsh and often violent experience, which has compounded the potentially traumatic experiences they faced in their country of origin.

In addition to human rights violations, there is an ongoing debate about the externalisation, i.e., outsourcing of asylum to third countries. What is your and UNHCR’s position towards this strategy?

I appreciate that some states have concerns with their asylum systems. The systems need to be more efficient and effective and—after a fair hearing—there needs to be a mechanism to return those not needing international protection. We want to work with states to improve asylum systems by making them fairer and faster.

But outsourcing asylum is not the answer. It is an evasion of a state’s responsibilities and counters the very spirit of the 1951 Convention. It also doesn’t solve the problem; it just shifts that very problem and those responsibilities to others—and this is especially disturbing when the shift is designed to occur to countries with less resources and which are already struggling with forced displacement challenges. How long will this go on—until only those countries neighbouring war zones save refugees and the rest of the world buries its head in the sand pretending the situation doesn’t exist?

So, what should states do instead? 

Instead of coming up with impractical—and frankly immoral—proposals, we need to implement solutions that protect the rights of those fleeing violence and persecution and instil the confidence of citizens in host countries in the system. UNHCR wants to work with states to help them with the challenges and make their systems stronger, more efficient and effective, while safeguarding the rights of people in need of help.

Last September the European Commission proposed a new Pact on Migration and Asylum to cover a comprehensive European approach to migration. What are your thoughts on the New Pact?

I welcome the proposed Pact. It is designed to accommodate the different exigencies and contexts of EU Member States and as such it is—inevitably—a compromise text, but it is a good and practical proposal to address the challenges in Europe. There must be much greater solidarity and predictability within the EU. Front line states cannot be left to deal with the situation on their own and we cannot have a lengthy drawn-out negotiation between states over who will receive those souls that have survived the harrowing journey. More also needs to be done to address irregular onward movement of asylum seekers within the EU. 

This has unfortunately become highly politicised within the EU in recent years. However, with the number of asylum seekers arriving to the EU remaining comparatively low, now is the time to sort these issues out. I encourage EU Member States to continue their discussions on the internal aspects of the Pact and my organisation is available to advise and support. And as these discussions will take time, I support the EU Member States that are trying to put in place at least temporary arrangements to manage disembarkations over the summer months, pending a broader agreement in encompassing the EU.

The Pact also underlines the importance of support outside the EU to countries hosting large numbers of refugees, or transit countries through which refugees move. Helping them better manage population flows is the right way to cooperate with countries that are—so to speak—‘upstream’ in terms of population flows towards Europe. If we help those countries strengthen their asylum and migration systems, we can hopefully reduce the number of people feeling compelled to embark on extremely dangerous sea journeys and reduce pressure along the entire routes.

The UNHCR was created in 1950 to help refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War and has protected and assisted many refugees since then. You yourself have been engaged in refugee and humanitarian work for more than 30 years and have served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2016. Can you share some of the best practices in finding durable solutions for refugee protection?

I’m glad that you asked that because there is no greater reward for me or UNHCR staff than in finding solutions to a refugee’s displacement—practically speaking, by helping refugees “belong”, be it through local integration, through resettlement of a relative few, or through what almost all refugees want—return without fear to their homeland. This is why we work so hard at this part of our mandate, even when conditions are less than perfect. We are, for example, working closely with Sudan and South Sudan, as well as countries in the region, on a set of actions to try to find solutions for the nearly seven million displaced people from and in those two countries. It is not easy and will take a lot of hard work, but we must all step up and do whatever we can to help those wanting an end to their exile. It is the least we can do.

This situation is unfortunately an exception these days. There are far too few conflicts where leaders and the international community are willing to take the steps needed to make peace, which is the real pre-requisite for large scale solutions to conflict. Even the UN Security Council is almost invariably unable or unwilling to agree on even basic humanitarian issues, never mind find the necessary unity to address its peace and security mandate. This is shameful.

In recent years, we have seen derogations from asylum and migration laws, and global solidarity failing. What are your hopes for the future and wishes on this day of commemoration?

There are more than 82 million human lives (similar to the population of Germany) that cannot be—must not be—cast aside as simply collateral damage in a quest for power and profit. If this past year—a year of pandemic—has taught us anything, it is that we are all vulnerable and that we can only deal with the major crises before us, be it COVID, climate, or conflict—crises that affect everyone on the planet—by working together and putting the interests of everyone, especially the most vulnerable, at the forefront of our efforts.

My hope is for a world in which political leaders live up to their responsibilities and understand that national interests are best defended through collective action in support of everybody’s interest—in which the ‘my country first’ approach is overcome by embracing and implementing the goals, values and obligations outlined in the Charter of the United Nations.

High Commissioner, thank you very much for the interview.



Filippo Grandi
is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was first elected by the UN General Assembly on 1 January 2016 for a five-year term. From 2010 to 2014, he served as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the UN Agency for Palestine refugees. He also served as Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Afghanistan and has worked with NGOs and UNHCR in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and at the UNHCR Geneva headquarters.

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