The Refugee Convention at 70: What Does the Future Hold in an Increasingly Bordered World?

Making humanitarian protection work in the 21st century requires walking the line between preserving what the Refugee Convention established 70 years ago, and finding new approaches that can reinvigorate its influence. A joint initiative between the Migration Policy Institute and the Robert Bosch Stiftung sets out to identify and evaluate alternative and workable approaches to address some of our critical challenges ahead.   

Robert Bosch Stiftung and Migration Policy Institute | July 2021
The Geneva Refugee Convention was adopted in Geneva on July 28, 1951.
Arni/UN Archives

The Geneva Refugee Convention was adopted at a special UN conference in Geneva on July 28, 1951, and entered into force on April 22, 1954.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in Geneva 70 years ago, was one of the first building blocks of the modern international human rights architecture. Its key contributions of defining who is a ‘refugee’ as well as the rights and obligations of States to refugees remain a central pillar of today’s international protection system. The world, however, has evolved significantly from the one drafters of the Convention inhabited in 1951, and trends such as border closures and pushbacks raise questions about whether the international protection system can be sustained in the decades ahead.

A time-bound statute, an evolving world

The 1951 Convention was drafted against the backdrop of a collective failure by States to protect individuals fleeing persecution and conflict during the Second World War. In response, states set out to create a system for international cooperation intended to prevent future atrocities. With the horrors of war a fresh memory, the drafters of the Convention found it reasonable to envisage that states would be willing to allow refugees to enter their territory to seek asylum. More than half a century later, this assumption no longer holds. Instead, access to asylum at borders, a key building block of the system, is increasingly and literally out of reach. 

Today’s bordered world, seen through the eyes of those seeking asylum and protection, takes myriad and complex forms, including physical barriers, such as fences or walls, and agreements with third countries to take back refugees who transited their territory (such as the EU deal with Turkey). States have also bluntly prevented forced migrants from requesting asylum by pushing back migrants and refugees into neighboring countries (as Greece has allegedly done in the Aegean Sea) or by closing their borders to new arrivals altogether (as the US has done on its border with Mexico). The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a convenient justification for many of these measures.

A research agenda for making protection work in a bordered world

The joint and multi-year initiative between the Migration Policy Institute and the Robert Bosch Stiftung seeks to address some of the Convention’s most critical gaps. It sets out to identify and evaluate alternative, workable approaches that address the mounting barriers to accessing and receiving protection for forced migrants. The initiative is informed by an Advisory Group, composed of representatives from international organisations, civil society, academia, and refugee-led initiatives from around the world. 

The initiative will seek to address three central challenges and, in doing so, contribute making the protection architecture fit for the future. First, the principles and norms contained in the Convention, such as on the right to seek asylum on state territories, have lost support, eroded in part by feelings of threat and fear towards refugees and other forced migrants. In response, the initiative sets out to better understand how such narratives have developed, what can be done to reshape them, and the role that particular policy approaches play in countering fear and increasing public generosity. The research will particularly focus on countries in the Global South, which host the large majority of refugees, but where research on public narratives and opinion remains thin.

A paper airplane flies over a border fence.
Adobe Stock/Maren Winter

The initiative between the Migration Policy Institute and the Robert Bosch Stiftung seeks to address some of the Convention’s most critical gaps.

Second, there is wide recognition that the needs compelling forced migrants to move today extend well beyond the relatively narrow confines of the original Convention. Regional and local human rights instruments have contributed to more flexible approaches and have widened access to protection by using broader definitions of who is a ‘refugee’, a question which is even more acute with climate change exacerbating many of the drivers of people’s displacement. Creative uses of regional and local instruments are thus another focus of the initiative. 

Finally, achieving effective protection for refugees and other forced migrants means narrowing the gap between formally stated protection norms and what actually happens on the ground. As borders have hardened in many places, the initiative will also examine how they can be reopened to those seeking protection. The initiative will also explore the legality and feasibility of measures that allow access to protection procedures before the border, for example through extraterritorial processing. Applying the Convention’s principles requires translating them to the local context. This is difficult without the voices of those whom the policies are intended to benefit. Identifying and evaluating workable approaches for building forced migrants’ voices into the design and implementation of protection policies is thus another key topic within the initiative.

Moving forward

Making protection work in the 21st century requires finding the right balance between preserving and reinvigorating what the Convention has established through its 70 years of existence, while reinforcing it with alternative and workable approaches. Creativity will also be key to allowing the Global Compact on Refugees to effectively complement the Convention by setting out a path for greater international sharing of responsibility for refugees. While there is reason to celebrate the achievements of the Convention, especially for providing a framework for protecting millions of refugees, there should also be an increased sense of urgency to take action on ensuring its principles can continue to have effect for decades to come.