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On anniversary of key refugee convention, UN agency stresses treaty's importance

On anniversary of key refugee convention, UN agency stresses treaty's importance

The main treaty for the protection of refugees - the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - marks its 50th anniversary Saturday amid concerns that some of its key provisions are being questioned and even openly flouted by a growing number of States, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today.

The Refugee Convention, which was adopted on 28 July 1951, forms the foundation of the modern international legal system designed to protect people who have to flee their countries because of persecution or conflict. In recent months, however, the continuing validity of the Convention has been publicly questioned in some quarters. This has alarmed UN officials and aid agencies who feel that politics are being played at the expense of the Convention and, therefore, of the refugees it protects.

The reasons behind the attacks on the Convention appear to be linked primarily to the rising number of asylum-seekers, the increase in people-smuggling networks, the perception that the majority of asylum-seekers are "bogus," and the high costs involved in maintaining asylum systems, UNHCR said in a statement.

"These concerns are understandable, but the critique of the Convention tends to ignore some vital basic factors," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. "Firstly, the main reason the numbers soared was that there were three major wars in Europe during the 1990s. Secondly, the whole point of the Convention is precisely to make the distinction between those who need the international protection that official refugee status affords, and those who do not. Therefore, it is only to be expected that a certain proportion fail to make the grade. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the Convention. Quite the contrary, in fact."

According to UNHCR, the most worrying trend is the growing number of States violating Article 33 of the Convention, which says, "No contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened."

"This, I find really reprehensible," said Mr. Lubbers. "If refugees are sent straight back to danger - or are prevented from leaving their countries in the first place - then all the other measures designed to protect and assist them count for nothing."

UNHCR is paying special attention to the problem this year, analyzing the extent of the practice in recent years in terms of the number of countries involved and the number of people affected. The agency has also launched a major drive to increase ratification of the Convention, particularly by countries in South and South-East Asia and the Middle East.