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Defence, Governance

The UN Convention on Refugees is not working

At the heart of the problem is the 1951 UN Refugee Convention

UN convention misunderstood, and it’s not working

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor – The Australian – 10 July 2010

THE refugee policy sets up perverse incentives.

ACCORDING to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, there are 16 million refugees in the world today. According to Julian Burnside, Malcolm Fraser and the other faux compassionate advocates of soft policies for illegal immigrants, any of those 16 million who get to Australia’s waters should be automatically offered permanent residence in Australia, with immediate access to welfare and all the other benefits Australia offers.

In fact, the category of people to whom the progressives would offer automatic permanent residence in Australia is far greater than this. Illegal immigrant advocates often say that even if someone fails to establish that they are likely to be subject to individual persecution, they cannot possibly be returned to a nation which is generally or sometimes not safe, such as Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.

This means that, to be intellectually honest, the progressive side of Australian politics and intellectual life is advocating that there are tens, probably hundreds, of millions of people who should have an automatic right of citizenship in Australia if they can only get here, or near to here, so that their claims have to be evaluated by our systems and our courts.

In reality, the logic of the progressive position is that the people-smugglers are good agents of history, merely enabling refugees to avail themselves of their genuine, intrinsic rights.

Of course, the Australian people would never stand for this. No Australian mainstream political party would ever advocate it. Even the Greens and others at the progressive end of politics are never honest enough to take their positions to their logical conclusions.

This demonstrates a profound crisis of irrelevance and dishonesty on the progressive side of politics.

It also, however, points to a systemic failing in the international, quasi-legal mechanisms that allegedly govern these matters.

At the heart of the problem is the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It is not only not working any more, it is setting up positively perverse incentives and having all manner of unintended and destructive consequences.

It is in desperate need of reform, but any conservative politician who addresses such a question will instantly be denounced as a racist, and almost all progressive politicians lack the stomach to confront the leftward end of their own constituencies on it.

Julia Gillard’s pretty bizarre balancing act, where she has accepted the absolute need to stop the boats getting to Australia illegally, but has proposed an almost certainly fanciful regional centre in East Timor, is an illustration of the dilemma progressive politicians face in office.

One progressive politician who did recognise the need to reform the UN Refugee Convention was former British prime minister Tony Blair.

His foreign secretary Jack Straw ran something of a campaign on the convention.

A decade ago, Straw pointed out: “The (1951) convention was designed for an era when international flows of people were on a much smaller scale than they are today. Intercontinental travel was rare, difficult and expensive. Fifty years on, new technology, global communications and cheap international travel have all contributed to a world where rapid long-distance migration is a realistic option.”

Straw further argued: “Too much effort and resources are being expended on dealing with unfounded claims for asylum.”

In the end, the Blair-Straw reform push went nowhere. The pressures of inertia and stasis are overwhelming in the international system.

The 1951 convention was set up by the Western powers essentially in the context of the Cold War. It was certainly set up in the moral context of the overwhelming experience of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. One of the many ironies of the convention is that it has had no effect in stopping subsequent quasi-genocidal events, such as in Rwanda and Darfur, and even in the Balkans. It has been totally ineffective in protecting masses of people subject to murderous violence.

But in truth it was never intended to do that anyway. It was meant to protect individuals fleeing from communism. This is one of the many design flaws in the convention for today’s circumstances.

It assumes that the regime a refugee flees from is permanently and forever oppressive. That is true if you are fleeing from a communist state in the time of Stalin. It is much less true today if, like most refugees and displaced people, you are fleeing from state conflict or state failure.

Similarly, the convention places a stress on establishing an applicant’s individual circumstances. Thus a person is a refugee if they have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

This means very explicitly that a person is not a refugee simply because there is military conflict in their homeland. But most people today genuinely fleeing danger are fleeing military conflict. Enforcing the convention leads to an often meaningless, and generally wholly subjective, process of determining a person’s fear of being persecuted.

Here is where the unintended consequences and perverse incentives come in. The best book on these issues ever written is Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West. With a mountain of irrefutable data, Caldwell establishes beyond doubt that the vast Muslim immigration to Europe in recent years is simply a determined illegal immigration, and has almost nothing to do with genuine refugee questions.

He also shows in minute detail how asylum-seekers learn the questions they will be asked, under the provisions of the convention, and what answers will gain them acceptance. He demonstrates how much easier it is to gain such acceptance if you throw away your documents and then tell a story designed to tick the boxes on the 1951 convention criteria. In recent decades, more asylum-seekers have gone to Europe than legally accepted foreign workers. Asylum-seeking thus became a method of immigration.

In saying this, I am not really criticising those people who chose to scam the asylum-seeker process to go and live in Europe. If I were living in North Africa, in any part of North Africa, I would certainly prefer to live in Europe and would pay a lot of money for the opportunity.

But what Caldwell and others demonstrate is that Europe completely lost control of its immigration program as a result of a misplaced sentiment about asylum-seekers, which was operationalised through legalistic adherence to the 1951 convention.

He also demonstrates, incidentally, that uncontrolled Muslim immigration of this kind has been a catastrophe for Europe.

It is also the fact that there is nothing remotely objective about the 1951 convention and how it is interpreted. Different countries are free to apply their own judgment to people’s situations. Thus, the world witnesses wildly different acceptance rates from, say, Britain to Norway of asylum-seekers from a given country.

Acceptance rates quickly become known and high acceptance rates attract more asylum-seekers. This is mitigated a little in Europe’s case because most failed asylum-seekers do not go home anyway, but simply stay illegally.

Australia is in a very unusual position. Along with Canada and the US, it is one of very few countries with a big and successful immigration program which has enjoyed broad public support and been very successful. The progressive side of Australian politics seems to want to destroy the almost uniquely successful Australian model, which involves Australia running a big program but choosing in an orderly way who gets to come here, and substitute for it instead the manifold failures and conflicts of Europe. This is astoundingly ill-advised.

Beyond the many faults of the 1951 convention, there is also a great mythology about what it actually contains. It contains no obligation on any country to offer permanent resettlement to asylum-seekers.

Temporary protection visas are completely in accord with the convention. The truth of the 16 million refugees in the world today is that most will not be resettled but will eventually go home, especially those fleeing conflict which is temporary.

A much smaller number than the 16 million actually require permanent resettlement. The most generous resettlement countries by far are the US, Canada and Australia. Normally, Australia is the first or second most generous resettlement country, offering today 13,750 places for resettlement under its refugee and humanitarian program each year.

But we resettle these refugees after we have chosen them. The Howard government chose 10,000 Burmese from camps in Thailand. And we always give them permanent residency because we are a decent people and we understand that permanent residency offers them the best chance of settling successfully in Australia.

But in the terms of the convention, Australia is only obliged, even with those classed as genuine refugees, not to return them to persecution.

Allowing them to shelter in Australia while their country gets better is completely consistent with the convention. But this is really a mechanism in denying people-smugglers their prized and expensive product – permanent residency in Australia.

A number of 24-carat democracies, such as India and Indonesia, will not sign the 1951 convention.

That is because it is no longer fulfilling its purpose and is positively worsening the management of unregulated population flows.

Full article here


About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News


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