The United Nations refugee agency on Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, stressing that it has never been more urgent to recommit to the spirit and fundamental principles of the key 1951 international treaty.
The anniversary came as rising violent attacks by jihadist groups in Burkina Faso are forcing record-breaking numbers of people to flee both inside the country and across international borders.
Six per cent of the population in the West African country is now internally displaced, with more than 1.3 million people uprooted in just over six weeks, according to latest government figures.
Spokesperson for the global refugee agency, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Babar Baloch, said in Geneva that the speed of internal displacement shows no sign of slowing as attacks on civilians and security forces continue unabated.
During the first six months of the year, 237,000 people fled their homes for other parts of the country, which is a sharp increase over the 96,000 registered during the second half of 2020.
“UNHCR is equally alarmed by an acceleration in the numbers of people from Burkina Faso forced to cross a border to reach safety”, Baloch said, pointing out, ‘’since January, more than 17,500 people have fled to neighbouring countries, nearly doubling the total number of refugees from the country in just six months. There are now 38,000 Burkinabè refugees and asylum seekers across the region.”
A worrying trend
Around 11,000 Burkinabè asylum seekers are in neighbouring Niger, up from 7,400 at the start of the year. Together with the authorities, UNHCR and partners are providing food, shelter, relief items and care, however violence and insecurity continue to hamper humanitarian access.
Some 900 asylum seekers arrived in the country last month from the northeastern village of Solhan, after fleeing an assault in which 130 people were killed. This incident was the deadliest attack in Burkina Faso since 2015.
Mali is also hosting 20,000 Burkinabè asylum seekers, with 6,600 people arriving in the Timbuktu region this year alone. As humanitarian access there is limited due to security conditions, UNHCR believes the number could be higher.
The agency also recently registered 179 asylum seekers in northern Benin, but thousands more are reportedly located in border areas inaccessible to humanitarians due to insecurity.
“Continuing this worrying trend, Côte d’Ivoire received its first Burkinabè asylum seekers in May when some 430 people, arrived seeking safety”, said Baloch.
UNHCR has appealed for concerted action towards peace and stability in Burkina Faso and neighbouring Central Sahel countries, Mali and Niger, which are also experiencing a sharp rise in violence and displacement.
The agency is seeking $259.3 million for operations in the region this year, but so far only half the funds have been received.
In the meantime, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, says “the Convention continues to protect the rights of refugees across the world. Thanks to the Convention, millions of lives have been saved.”
Grandi expressed alarm over recent attempts by some governments to disregard or circumvent the Convention’s principles, from expulsions and pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers at land and sea borders to proposals for their forcibly transfer to third states for processing without proper protection safeguards.
He stressed the need for the international community to uphold the key principles of refugee protection as laid out in the Convention, including the right of those fleeing persecution not to be returned to the path of harm or danger.
Speaking 70 years to the day after the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was presented to States for signing, the High Commissioner said the treaty was a crucial component of international human rights law and remains as relevant now as it was when it was drafted and agreed.
“The language of the Convention is clear as to the rights of refugees…remain applicable in the context of contemporary and unprecedented challenges and emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic”, underscored Grandi.
International cooperation essential
The 1951 Refugee Convention was born following the aftermath of the Second World War. On December 14, 1950, the UN published the statute, and on July 1951 representatives of 26 states met in Geneva to finalise the text of the treaty.
The Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which broadened the scope of those in need of international protection, define who is a refugee and the kind of protection, assistance and rights they are entitled to.
They remain the cornerstone of refugee protection today and have inspired numerous regional treaties and laws, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in Latin America, and the European Union’s Common European Asylum System.
The principles of the Convention were reaffirmed in December 2018 by the Global Compact on Refugees, a blueprint for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing.
Both recognize that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.
UNHCR is calling on all states to adopt principles of refugee law, including the 1951 Convention, by enacting legislation and establishing institutions, policies and practices reflecting its provisions. It is also encouraging countries that are not contracting states to accede to the Convention – as the 2018 signatory South Sudan continues to do.
The 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention comes only a few months after UNHCR itself marked seven decades as the world’s mandated organisation for the protection of those forcibly displaced.