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How Countries Can Do Better on World Refugee Day

70th Anniversary of Refugee Convention an Opportunity to Commit to Nonrefoulement

Demonstrators mark World Refugee Day, June 20, 2020, on the streets of Athens. © 2020 Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via AP Photo

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, but on World Refugee Day, as we laud the 148 countries that have acceded to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, we look with alarm at a belt of countries stretching from Libya through most of the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia that have yet to sign on, and at state parties that continue to flout its principles.

Disappointingly many countries not party to the Convention also claim to not be bound by its principles that are customary international law. The most fundamental is nonrefoulement which bars the return of refugees to places where they would face the threat of persecution. This year alone, we have seen non-signatories like Thailand push back dissidents fleeing the military junta in Myanmar. Jordan deported Yemeni refugees who had registered with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. And after detaining them in horrendous conditions, Saudi Arabia sent home Ethiopians, including Tigrayans, without any assessment of possible asylum claims.

But even being a party to the Convention has unfortunately not guaranteed respect for the principle of nonrefoulement. 

Consider Greece, which ratified the Convention in 1960. For more than a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented the unlawful return, including through violent pushbacks, of groups and individuals from Greece to Turkey by Greek security forces and unidentified armed men who appear to be working in tandem with border enforcement officials.

In Tanzania, Human Rights Watch has documented refoulement of Burundian refugees and asylum seekers since 2017. Between October 2019 and August 2020, Tanzanian police and intelligence services forcibly disappeared, tortured, and arbitrarily detained at least 11 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers, forcibly returning eight of them to Burundi in August. They are now on trial on baseless charges. UNHCR also recently reported that Tanzania forcibly returned more than 9,600 asylum seekers to Mozambique since January 2021.

And in the United States, party to the Refugee Protocol, the Biden administration has maintained the Trump administration’s use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to expel asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border without giving them an opportunity to state or pursue refugee claims. 

The 70th anniversary should be an occasion to pressure governments to ratify the Refugee Convention. And on World Refugee Day especially, countries that are already party to the Convention should reaffirm their commitment to uphold the foundation of international refugee law and not send refugees back to potential harm.

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