70 Years Later, 1951 Refugee Convention is More Necessary Than Ever

Wednesday, July 28, 2021


Today CGRS joined leaders from the more than 80 #WelcomeWithDignity campaign member organizations in marking the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Convention defines the term "refugee" and is the basis of international refugee and asylum law. With more people forcibly displaced than ever, the threat of the climate crisis, and conflict around the world, the world needs to redouble its efforts to protect refugees now more than ever. 

“The adoption of the Refugee Convention was a watershed moment for human rights around the globe. The United States helped draft the Convention and has committed to uphold it. Our asylum laws were designed to align our treatment of refugees with the values enshrined in the Convention,” said Kate Jastram, Policy & Advocacy Director at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS). “But today the Biden administration continues to expel people seeking asylum to danger en masse, a blatant violation of the Convention’s guiding principle that people cannot be returned to danger. It is past time for this administration to turn the page on cruel policies of the past, establish a safe and fair asylum process, and welcome people seeking refuge with dignity.”

“Today’s anniversary provides an important and much-needed reminder of this nation’s legal obligations to protect those seeking asylum or refuge,” said Margaret Huang, SPLC President and CEO. “Seeking protection from violence and persecution is a fundamental human right, affirmed through the international Refugee Convention as well as our domestic laws. After the painful U.S. border policies of the last several years, we need the Biden Administration to step up and do more to protect the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, and all immigrants.”

“After thousands of Jewish refugees and others threatened during World War II were denied safe passage to other countries and forced to return to perish at the hands of the Nazis, the Refugee Convention of 1951 set basic principles recognizing the right of any individual in any part of the globe to obtain asylum if they are in danger of persecution. In limiting asylum claims, detaining asylum-seekers, and expelling people at the border, the United States is violating international law and putting the lives of thousands in unnecessary danger. We must do better at affirming the values of equality and justice for all by welcoming those who seek refuge at our borders, rather than discouraging them from coming.”  said Dina Friedman from Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice of Western Massachusetts.

“Children make up roughly half of the world’s refugees, and it’s the job of governments around the globe to keep them safe,” said Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus on Children. “On the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Refugee Convention, we urge President Biden to fully and completely reject the intentionally cruel policies that the previous Administration aimed at these children and to fully restore and protect the safety of children seeking refuge and asylum.”

“Indigenous Peoples migrating north are not immigrants. We, Indigenous Peoples from north to south of Abya Yala have been in sacred relationships with each other and these lands since time immemorial. Citizens of Maya Nations are forcibly displaced by colonial settler states, religious institutions, and transnational corporations working hand-in-hand to persecute, torture, and erase these sacred relationships through genocidal practices. Indigenous Peoples belong to and come from these lands and have pre-existing rights. The U.S. must stop supporting the colonial states and transnational corporations committing genocide and forced displacement of our relatives so that we have the right to stay home and fullfill our sacred political and spiritual obligations to the ancestral lands and peoples we belong to. Until then, we have a right to maintain our relationships with Indigenous nations in the north and seek protections in the U.S. under our pre-existing rights, international human rights legal mechanisms such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), and the Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol,” said Carolina Martin Ramos, Co-Executive Director, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim

“Seventy years ago, this week, top world leaders came together for the first Refugee Convention, a cornerstone of refugee protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This group imagined and hoped they could solve an international crisis. They quickly learned that the root causes which created refugees could not be solved quickly and would require a constant and persistent response. Our resolve to welcome refugees is about a ministry of compassion, accompaniment, resilience, and hope. Presbyterians have understood this for decades,” said The Rev. Dr. J.Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA).  “My prayer is that all in this country see the hope and potential when refugees are welcomed into our community. I also hope that our representatives in Washington will support legislative measures that promote resettlement so that refugees are afforded the opportunity to grow and thrive. For those of us who are Christian, may we remember that our faith is grounded in the ministry of a man who started life as a refugee.”

“Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the United States helped draft and later pledged to abide by, signifying our nation’s commitment to protecting the rights and dignity of people seeking safety. But in the following decades, American leadership has regularly failed to uphold this commitment. Some have actively subverted it, aspiring to inflict the most significant suffering possible on people fleeing persecution,” said Mike Breen, President & CEO of Human Rights First. “The Biden administration must take principled action to change course. They must right these wrongs, uphold refugee law, and genuinely commit to protecting refugees. They must welcome refugees with dignity and compassion, both because it is their legal obligation to do so, and because every human being has the right to live in safety, with freedom and equality. Human Rights First works to build a world in which every person is valued. It’s time for the Biden administration to do the same.”

“This Refugee Convention anniversary, we honor the lives and work of the refugees who have paved the way for our leadership. While much progress has been made in the last seventy years, major gaps remain that impede the lives of countless refugees and asylum seekers worldwide” said Basma Alawee, Campaign Manager, We Are All America. “As we get closer to the Presidential Determination, we must push the Biden administration to set and meet an admissions goal of 125,000 for the fiscal year of 2022, provide Afghan special immigrant visa (SIV) solutions, and put an immediate end to Title 42.”

“The US is at its best when it lives up to its promise as a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution,” said Jonathan Blazer, Director of Border Strategies for the ACLU.  “Whether the Biden administration restores this promise – and welcomes refugees and asylees seeking the critical protections afforded by the Refugee Convention and US – is a key civil and human rights test of our time.“

“For more than 100 years, Jewish Family Service of San Diego has been carrying out the tradition of Welcoming the Stranger, and aiding refugees from around the world as they rebuild their lives in San Diego in safety and with dignity,” said Etleva Bejko, Director of Refugee & Immigration Services for Jewish Family Service of San Diego. “As we reflect on the last 70 years since the signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention, we must not forget the more than 80 million displaced men, women and children around the world who remain in immediate danger – fleeing war, persecution and violence. As one of the primary refugee resettlement agencies in San Diego County, we see firsthand how refugees and immigrants strengthen our social fabric and make our country more prosperous and resilient in a changing world.”

“The Refugee Convention stands as one of the grandest pledges to global compassion ever created. It provided the framework for the nations of the world to offer protection to those forced to flee their homes so that they could build lives in peace. The Convention also inspired individual countries to think about how to welcome the world’s displaced with compassion and in affirmation of the inherent dignity of all,” said Rick Santos, President and CEO of Church World Service. “Seventy years later, we remain ready to welcome. Whether through refugee resettlement, or through the legal right to asylum, the United States is stronger when it lives up to its promise as a humane, equitable, and just nation. Today is a day of celebration, but it must also be a day of action. So, in honor of the anniversary, we call on the Biden administration and Congress to honor our legacy of welcome. We can and must rebuild our resettlement program and fully restore the right to asylum.”

“For 70 years, more than 100 nations have committed to the ideal of ensuring that the rights of refugees are respected,” said Katharina Obser, Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “In recent years, the U.S. government has failed to uphold that promise to protect. Even today, on the anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United States summarily expels the vast majority of people seeking safety at our borders, plainly violating non-refoulement, or the principle that refugees cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. For so long, we have called on the U.S. government to lead with vision and uphold its basic obligation to offer protection to those fleeing persecution. The Biden administration has claimed it will undo anti-asylum policies of the last four years while also repeatedly demanding those fleeing for their lives not seek safety at U.S. borders. WRC urges President Biden to once and for all uphold our historic commitments and demonstrate the power of welcoming with dignity.”

“The Refugee Convention called on the world never to repeat the moral and political failures of telling refugees not to come and seek protection.,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Today, this message is evergreen, as the Biden administration subjects adults and families to expedited removal, continues the unlawful summary expulsion policy under Title 42, and tells Haitian, Cuban, and Central American refugees not to come to its borders, despite the legal right to seek asylum. It is past time for the U.S. to follow international law and process asylum seekers with the dignity, due process, and humanity they deserve.”

“As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, the US must recommit to our country’s promise as a global leader for refugee protection,” said Noah Gottschalk, Global Policy Lead for Oxfam America. “Too often throughout our history, the US has failed to live up to this promise, denying our legal and moral obligations and the contributions that refugees have made to our society and national identity over generations. Seeking asylum is a right, and the Biden administration must provide protection to people fleeing persecution in accordance with domestic and international law. President Biden must also live up to his own promises to build a more humane immigration system, including by immediately and fully ending Title 42.”

“On July 27, 1951 the United States joined our international partners to protect the rights of refugees in writing through the Refugee Convention. Seventy-years later, the United States government is actively violating the Convention’s Article 33 by expelling refugees to danger in their birth countries,” said Immigrant Defenders Law Center Executive Director Lindsay Toczylowski. “Under the Biden “Do not come” policy, refugees are stripped of a welcome into safety. The Biden administration must uphold the Convention protocols and commit to welcoming all refugees with dignity and afford them the right to protection. Title 42 is clearly violating the Convention, and must end immediately.”

Added Anna Gallagher, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., or CLINIC: “Jesus was a refugee. Welcoming and assisting the world’s persecuted people is at the very core of our Catholic identity. The Biden administration has made some strides forward on humanitarian immigration policies, but there is so much more to be done. Expelling people and families under expedited removal and Title 42 go against our commitments to God and humanity. We must eliminate past and present anti-refugee policies, use Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure to the maximum and fix all that is broken within the U.S. asylum and immigration court system. We cannot keep sending people back to the danger they fled.” 

“Seventy years ago, global leaders came together with the hope to create a more just way to solve international crises and reached a contractual agreement that it was necessary for refugees to be treated in accordance with internationally recognized basic minimum standards,” said Todd Schulte, President and CEO, FWD.us. “The United States is party to the Convention’s 1967 Protocol and in 1980 incorporated it into its own domestic law. One of the core principles of these legal instruments is that of non-refoulement, which prohibit asylum seekers from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms are at risk. On this anniversary, we acknowledge the Biden Administration’s initial steps to address problems at our border, but also call on the Administration to do more to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to protecting refugees and leave behind wildly ineffective deterrence policies that keep people in desperate need of humanitarian relief at risk of irreparable and fatal human consequences. Currently, we have a unique opportunity to live up to our long-strived values of equality and justice for all. It’s time to truly build back better. This country is ready. The American people are ready to welcome those in need.”

“The American people have moved in a decidedly pro-immigrant direction despite, or perhaps in reaction to, the rhetoric and policies of the former President,” said Douglas Rivlin, Director of Communication for America’s Voice. “Americans want policies as generous as the American people are and we are ready to recommit ourselves to the goals and principles of the Refugee Convention. Together, we can again assume a leadership role among nations in our commitment to refugees and those who see the U.S. as a beacon of hope and freedom.”

“As we mark the 70th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention, we acknowledge the path forged forward for us decades ago and how far we’ve come in recognizing what we could do to keep each other safe and look after one another,” said Denise Bell, Researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA. “However, we still have a long way to go to implement the solutions needed and to create a fair system for everyone. The Biden administration should take this moment to reassert U.S. leadership on refugee protection by meeting its promise to rebuild the U.S. refugee program and restoring full access to asylum for all people seeking safety. Establishing a new private sponsorship program, as part of an expanded community sponsorship system, is an innovative step to creating a more resilient refugee program and robust welcome. Private sponsorship places communities at the heart of welcome, knitting neighbors together to support newcomers. The same opportunities for welcome and access to safety must be extended to people seeking asylum at the southern border. A just, compassionate, and equitable asylum system does not rest on deterrence, detention, and deportation, or offshoring responsibilities.  We all have a stake in making the world a safer place, and the U.S. must do better to ensure there are humane pathways to safety and empower communities to work on creating safe havens.”

“The Refugee Convention forbids governments from returning refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Yet on its 70th anniversary Border Patrol expels Central Americans into the hands of criminal organizations that rape and abduct migrants in northern Mexico while the US Coast Guard interdicts and summarily returns Cubans as their government is cracking down on street protests.”

“The world is at a crossroads. Either the U.S. leads the way in showing that the historic 1951 Refugee Convention remains a vital part of the world order, or it leads the way in showing that appeasing white supremacists and nativists is once again the international norm,” said Angelica Salas, CHIRLA Executive Director.  “The brutal lessons brought to us by WWII refugees, and governments’ failure to protect them, appear to be forgotten, even though the need for international refuge and protection has only grown during the last 70 years. As Climate Change creates even more forced migration, governments must affirm and humanize their commitments to the agreement and everything it stands for. Like Climate Change, the refugee crisis looms over the entire world, little action is taken due to the denials and cruelty of a minority. We will not accept a rollback of the Refugee Convention.  We want and need bold and principled leadership from the U.S. in the present and in the future.”

"Pope Francis said the moral response to all those forced to flee can be summed up in four active verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate. The Refugee Convention embodies those words. As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the convention we hope the Biden Administration will take heed and welcome, protect, promote and integrate all who flee, especially those at our southern border," said Ronnate Asirwatham, Director Government Affairs, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice

“Seventy years ago, world leaders came together to commit to protect those forced to flee their homes by codifying the Refugee Convention. Today, this commitment is needed now more than ever, with millions around the world displaced by violence and persecution,” said Joan Rosenhauer, Executive Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “Because of this commitment, a long standing tradition of welcome, and our values as a country, it is our legal and moral obligation to offer protection to those people seeking safety in the United States, including our brothers and sisters at our southern border. We urge the Biden Administration to recommit to refugee protection and honor the legal right to seek asylum.”

“We celebrate a moment when the highest aspirations of our shared humanity—good faith, empathy and compassion—prompted world leaders to protect refugees. Now, seven decades later, have we learned from the past? Can we say we are committed to caring for our neighbors and protecting them from persecution?” said Marv Knox, founding coordinator of Fellowship Southwest. “As we default to fear and xenophobia—exemplified by our immigration policies—the United States abdicates our responsibility to our global sisters and brothers. We also turn our backs on the principles that led our predecessors to adopt the Convention. This abdication has resulted—and continues to result—in the suffering, torture and deaths of thousands of refugees. The U.S. government cannot continue to distance itself from their pain and loss. The administration must channel the wisdom and courage of those who drafted the Convention. The United States must end Title 42 and welcome refugees to our borders.”

“The 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention is a powerful reminder of our nation’s core values and the progress made towards upholding human rights,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of only nine national refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. “But past is simply prologue. The United States cannot rest on its laurels as one of the driving forces behind this landmark agreement: we must unfailingly abide by the principles and legal obligations envisioned therein. If we are to truly honor the Refugee Convention, we must end the rampant expulsions of asylum seekers at our southern border without so much as a court hearing. The future is ours to wield – it is paramount that a new era of welcome is rooted in a fair, efficient, and humane immigration system that recognizes the dignity of all who seek protection.”