Thursday, September 30, 2010

Does the Refugee Convention Provide rights for non-Refugees?

The most elementary right owed to refugees is that they not be returned, or “re-fouled” to their home state where they are endangered. The classic expression of the principle is found in the 1951 Convention: “No contracting state shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontier of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a certain social group or political opinion.”[1] The principle of non-refoulement is becoming, if it is not already, considered a “peremptory norm” of international law that binds all states. [2]     

In earlier treaties and in the original drafts of the 1951 Convention, the duty of non-refoulement applied only to individuals lawfully present in the state, “refugees who have been authorized to reside in [state party] regularly.”[3] But a shift occurred during the drafting, probably related to the fact that so many refugees were already present in the member states, that a restriction requiring legal entry would have the effect of delegitimizing the majority of valid refugees already present. It seems that parties had already acknowledged this fact, since the discussion of clandestine entry in the travaux is limited to stating that that it is acceptable.[4] Simply put, under the under the principle of non-refoulement any removal at all that puts the refugee in danger is prohibited, whether classified as deportation, forced repatriation, or any other name.[5] This applies to individuals regardless of whether they have been recognized as refugees by the state apparatus.[6] In other words, the principle of non-refoulement attaches at the same moment that you become a refugee under the 1951 Convention, and neither the status determination nor the attaching obligation is dependant on state classifications. This fact is important for undocumented migrants for two reasons

First, it legitimizes illegal entry in certain cases. As a matter of fact, the duty of non-refoulement only applies to individuals already present in the receiving state. As Hathaway explains, “if the duty of non-refoulement under Art. 33 of the Refugee Convention can be claimed only by persons who are, in fact, refugees, then it is not a right that inheres in persons who have yet to leave their country… because Art. 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who resides‘outside the country of his nationality.’”[7] Opening the door to illegal entry is an important feature in and of itself, as it demonstrates that there are occasions in international law when the territorial jurisdiction of a state cedes precedence to the needs to an individual.
The second importance of non-refoulement as it relates to clandestine entry is that it creates a presumption that individuals entering a country illegally could potentially have a claim to asylum. This presumption in turn creates a need for a minimum standard of administrative procedures prior to expulsion that could be beneficiary for a person regardless of his or her status.

Status Determinations
If an individual meets the definition of refugee under the 1951 Convention then he or she is a refugee, regardless of whether or not his or her host government or any other body finds otherwise. The 1967 Protocol does not list formal status recognition as a requirement[8] and the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status (“the Handbook”) explicitly states that a person becomes a refugee at the instant he or she fulfills the criteria. “Recognition of his refugee status does not therefore make him a refugee but declares him to be one. He does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognized because he is a refugee.”[9] This being the case, states may not expel individuals without some basic form of procedural due process to determine the validity of their asylum claim, lest they violate the principle of non-refoulement.

UNHCR recognizes that a variety of procedural systems could adequately determine refugee status, and therefore does not suggest one method for doing so, but does lay out a set ofrecommendations for minimum standards when dealing with refugee status determinations that would comply with the Convention.[10] At the least, individuals should have an opportunity to speak to an official familiar with the State’s international obligations, have access to an interpreter, and the ability to remain in the country pending adjudication of his application, as well as the opportunity to appeal at a higher court.[11]

While it would seem that a majority of 1951 convention states do comply with UNHCR’s recommendation in some form, the effect of these basic due process provisions is beneficial to undocumented migrants regardless of whether or not they are enacted. First, they provide an opportunity to engage with the receiving state’s legal system that may lead to residence status, even in the absence of a refugee determination under the 1951 Convention. Second, in States that do not comply, the lack of these standards is a foothold for NGO’s and human rights treaties to attack the treatment of migrants in general.

*Excerpted from a previous memo on the subject of non-refoulement and rights for undocumented peoples.


[1] 1951 Convention at art. 33
[2] Daniel Bethlehem and Sir Elihu Lauterpacht "The Scope and Content of the Principle of non-refoulement: Opinion", in Refugee Protection in International Law 107 (Erika Feller, Volker Turk, Frances Nicholson eds., 2001)
[3] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 159 LNTS 3663, Oct. 28, 1933 at Art. 3.
[4] Collected Travaux at A/CONF.2/SR. 5, 16 
[5] Bethlehem and Lauterpacht supra note 126 at 112.
[6] Id at 116
[7] James C. Hathaway. The Rights of Refugees under International Law. 307 (2005)
[8] 1967 Protocol
[9] UNHCR, Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees ¶ 28, UN Doc.  HCR/IP/4/ENG/REV.1.
[10] Id at 191
[11] Id at 192 (i)-(vii)

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