Europe should consult its refugees

The United Nations’ Refugee Convention is far from perfect, but its radical notions should be resurrected.

Refugees in Europe WW2
Around 60 million people were displaced by World War II, and their predicament called for bold and creative thinking, writes Gatrell [Getty]

Much ink and much blood have been spilled during the current refugee crisis, but little has been said about attempts to address major refugee crises in the past. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that the scale of global population displacement after the second World War eclipsed the numbers we read about today. In Europe, some 60 million people were displaced by war and its aftermath; in South Asia, the number made homeless by the Partition of India in 1947 may have affected 20 million, and at least one million Palestinians became refugees in 1948. In the Far East, as many as 90 million people were displaced.

Living in circumstances of great uncertainty, their predicament called for bold and creative thinking of a kind that is sorely lacking today.

James Read, the first deputy high commissioner, described the convention as a 'Magna Carta for refugees'. Eight-hundred years after the original Magna Carta, it's worth recalling this aspiration.


One outcome of the second World War was the creation of two key institutions: the European Union (its original incarnation was a European coal and steel community), and the International Refugee Organisation, which was succeeded in 1951 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), alongside the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Syrian refugees continue flowing into Europe

Both post-war institutions are now being called into question. In the EU, the current crisis points to a failure of cooperation and coordination that became evident in the majority rather than the unanimous decision to agree on a quota for limited numbers of Syrian refugees to be admitted into member states. Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in particular, are deeply unhappy about the implications.

European integration

In the case of the Refugee Convention, the increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers has prompted suggestions that it is no longer relevant to the new millennium – critical voices range from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Scott Morrison, the erstwhile Australian minister of immigration and border protection. Daniel Hannan, a leading British MEP, calls for the convention to be interpreted much more stringently to prevent asylum seekers from remaining in the UK while their cases are being heard. Meanwhile, UNHCR seems powerless to influence government policy.

Related: The grid of repression

It’s worth revisiting the background of the emergence of these institutions. The history of European integration is partly about the intellectual arguments in its favour, and the founding fathers created a mythology around integration and portrayed it in teleological terms, as if nothing could stand in the way of realising European unity.

Integration had a crucial economic component designed to stabilise and invigorate capitalism. But it also strengthened the nation-state. This tension between those who supported the “European idea” and those who privileged national economic self-interest suggests that today’s political fissures are nothing new, but are an inherent element in the politics of the EU.

Of course, the EU has been a dynamic institution: absorbing new members, each with different levels of economic development, but also with their own imagined history – which helps to raise policy disagreements. The intransigent stance adopted by the current government in Budapest towards refugees is a case in point, replete with references to Hungary’s historic “defence” of Christendom. With this kind of rhetoric, it will be impossible to agree on member states’ responsibilities for protecting refugees, and harder still for refugees when public opinion is being manipulated in this way.

Radical thinking

The origins of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and UNHCR lend some support to those who argue that it is time to rethink the international refugee regime. The arrangements were meant to last for three years, the length of the original UNHCR mandate, and the convention originally applied to refugees whose persecution could be attributed to events occurring in Europe before January 1951. Largely at the US’ insistence, there was no expectation that UNHCR would involve itself in future refugee crises.

Nevertheless, having extended its mandate (through its “good offices” formula in the 1950s, and formally, through the 1967 Protocol), the UNHCR continued to be backed during the Cold War by states that found it politically useful to support victims of communist persecution – including, it should be added, Hungarian refugees in 1956.

Often overlooked, however, is the progressive stance adopted by non-governmental organisations and religious groups, such as the Quakers, who emphasised refugees’ right to asylum – not just the right to claim asylum – and entitlement to the same rights afforded to ordinary citizens.

International lawyers, including Paul Weis, who themselves had direct experience with persecution and displacement, were also sympathetic. Unsurprisingly, governments insisted on their right to determine which refugees made a valid case for recognition, and this utopian moment passed. Nevertheless, James Read, the first deputy high commissioner, described the convention as a “Magna Carta for refugees”. Eight hundred years after the original Magna Carta, it’s worth recalling this aspiration.


Post-war institutions were years in the making and the product of hard bargaining. Both have adapted to changing circumstances. Like the EU, the Refugee Convention is far from perfect. But the visionary strand in post-war thinking, post-war reconstruction and growth, and the insistence that refugees deserved both protection and a meaningful and secure life badly needs to be resurrected. And on the subject of leadership and creative thinking, why not ensure that refugees are given ample opportunity to be consulted? After all, it is their lives that are most directly at stake.

Peter Gatrell is the author of The Making of the Modern Refugee. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.