UN agency hails 40th anniversary of landmark African refugee convention

10 September 2009

Today marks the 40th anniversary of an African refugee convention, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) hails as “groundbreaking” for having paved the way for millions on the continent to receive protection and assistance.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of an African refugee convention, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) hails as “groundbreaking” for having paved the way for millions on the continent to receive protection and assistance.

Under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee was defined as a person having “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

The 1969 Refugee Convention of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU), expanded that definition to include “every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order.”

The pact’s “importance and vitality remain undiminished today,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said.

In Africa today, there are nearly 2.7 million refugees and asylum-seekers. There are a further 6.3 million uprooted within their own countries, with the continent home to almost half of all of the world’s internally displaced persons (IDPs).

George Okoth-Obbo, UNHCR’s Africa Bureau Director, acknowledged that there have been and continued to be failures, due to derelict State behaviour and other reasons, to protect the rights enshrined in the pact, but stressed these “cannot be put at the door of the 1969 Convention itself.”

He noted that the Convention does not protect those forced to flee their homes internally by conflict or other factors, along with the emerging threat of climate change.

To this end, the AU is holding a special summit next month in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to adopt a regional convention on internal displacement.

That agreement will be the first of its kind in the world, Mr. Okoth-Obbo noted. “It is critical that the convention elaborates the primary obligations of States, ranging from the responsibility to prevent displacement itself to responses which should be activated when and where displacement takes place.”

 

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