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World Refugee Day
The UN Convention

World Refugee Day
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While a concerted effort at refugee relief is a relatively new enterprise, refugees are as old as war. In 1951, only six years after the end of World War II, the United Nations began to address the issue of refugees. The multilateral treaty known as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has been ratified a handful of times since and sets the terms for what is and is not a refugee.

According to the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who has fled his or her home or country because of “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” This can also include someone who has fled his or her home country due to natural or human-caused disasters. The Convention makes clear that war criminals could not obtain refugee status. Most importantly, it recognized the rights of refugees to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Further provisions ensured that refugees would be granted rights and benefits from the state they are in, as well as additional benefits from the Convention itself.

Interestingly, the Korean War was going on during the first UN Refugee Convention. The United States brought troops in under the UN auspices to bolster South Korean forces. Many North and South Koreans were forced to leave as refugees, leading the largest groups to migrate to either China, Russia, or the United States. This, including the enduring effects of World War II refugees—and Jewish diasporas in particular—no doubt helped to motivate the shape of refugee status under the UN provisions.

Wars create refugees: people who have lost too much, who cannot fight, or those caught in the crossfire of a war they want no part in. Many refugees throughout history have relocated to more stable areas at great benefit to those recipient countries. Some of the most notable of these include Albert Einstein and Bertolt Brecht who both fled from Nazi Germany, Freddie Mercury who fled the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, Karl Marx who was ousted from Germany and France for his political writings, and Victor Hugo who was also forced to leave France for his political beliefs.

World Refugee Day is June 20th. 

By Thad Higa

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