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Saturday, 28 July, 2001, 04:36 GMT 05:36 UK
Key refugee treaty marks 50 years
Afghan refugee family
12 million have fled across international borders
By Emma Jane Kirby in Geneva

The main global treaty for the protection of refugees is marking its 50th anniversary amid growing concerns that the convention is no longer valid.

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was formally adopted on the 28 July 1951 and has been ratified by 140 countries.

But the increasing numbers of asylum seekers and the increase in people-smuggling networks has led to many people raising doubts about the convention's capabilities and provisions.

There are now more than 12 million refugees in the world and the UN Convention is responsible for establishing the international legal framework designed to protect them.

Bogus

Refugees - defined under the Convention as people who have to flee their countries because of persecution or conflict - are also given certain basic rights under its protection, such as the right to identity papers and access to education.

But with the number of asylum seekers on the increase and a growing difficulty in distinguishing between bogus or economic asylum seekers from the genuine ones, questions are being raised as to the convention's efficiency and validity.

According to Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the convention has saved countless lives:

"The convention hasn't failed. It has secured enormous rights and protection. I know, as High Commissioner for Human Rights, how important it is on the protection side and without it those who are very vulnerable would be without any framework for their protection.

Afghan refugees at Jalozai
The UN wants refugees to be treated with more understanding and respect
"It's true that countries don't live up to their obligations. It's true that countries don't let UNHCR penetrate properly in access where there are problems at borders etc, but the convention is a vital legal framework.

"I'm very committed to it. I'm glad we're marking the fiftieth anniversary. We need to reinforce and strengthen rather than undermine it."

But while the number of refugees is on the increase, the global tolerance of asylum seekers is diminishing, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Hostility

He stressed that the Convention had never been intended as a body to sort out all the world's migration problems.

In the current climate of hostility, its true protective purpose, he said, had never been more relevant or necessary: "There have been three major wars in Europe in the 1990's, in the Balkans and there have also been major wars elsewhere.

"If, you like, the international community states get their act together and there are fewer wars, if more states become democratic and persecution is reduced, then you'll see fewer refugees. The refugees are simply a reflection of wider problems."

Last year, the UNHCR launched a global process to identify problems within the convention in an effort to try to strengthen it.

But whilst its verification programme may resolve some of its minor difficulties, there is a major one yet to be overcome . The majority of states in large parts of the world, namely South and South East Asia and the Middle East, have yet to sign the refugee convention.

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See also:

14 Jun 01 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Refugees' plight
21 Jun 01 | Scotland
Homeless fears for refugees
19 Jun 01 | Background
50 years of refugees
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