Any commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees this week cannot ignore the central issue ~ numbers of those fleeing persecution in their homelands is rising exponentially. In 2020, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an additional 1.4 million individuals “sought protection outside their country of origin” despite the impact of Covid-19 on travel.
This trend, in turn, gives rise to a more fundamental question: Is it possible to provide the epistemological comforts of home in a land of refuge? The conflict in the Tigray province of Ethiopia, growing instability in Afghanistan, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cuba, as well as political repression in Myanmar and Hong Kong suggest that millions will continue to flood nations willing, or increasingly not-so-willing, to provide them refuge.
The world’s commitment to supporting the terms of the 1951 Convention is clearly waning. Some experts are pinning their hopes on the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) adopted in December 2018 to help improve the situation, especially through responsibility-sharing with countries hosting large numbers of refugees. But a concerted multilateral effort to bring this proposal to fruition is missing.
The number of refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate has doubled to 20.7 million from 10.4 million a decade ago and this figure does not include the 5.7 million Palestinians under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or the 3.9 million Venezuelans displaced abroad.
According to one estimate, over three-fourth of refugees globally have little prospect of arriving at a durable solution in the form of voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration, as advocated by the Convention.
Only 3.9 million refugees were able to return to their homes between 2010 and 2019, compared to almost 10 million between 2000 and 2009 and 15.3 million in the 1990s. In 2020 this figure was only 250,951.
Formal local integration in the form of citizenship continues to be rare ~ there were only 33,746 refugee naturalisations in 2020. Resettlement, the basis of the 1951 Convention and of burden-sharing with countries hosting refugees, has been poor with quotas having fallen significantly, leaving the UNHCR unable to meet its goal of finding resettlement spots for at least one per cent of the world’s refugee population.
Against this international backdrop, and with the world’s richest and most powerful country, the USA, showing no visible signs of wanting to take the lead on the refugee issue, very little counts.
India’s move to provide refuge to persecuted religious minorities in South Asia and fast-track their naturalisation as Indian citizens as envisaged under the new citizenship law may prove to be a beacon of hope for many. Whatever those with ideological differences with the law may think, its humanitarian impulse ~ even if it is not multi-dimensional ~ cannot be denied.
Indeed, the world may want to learn from India how at least the closest approximation to the comforts of home can be provided to those forced to flee theirs.