In 1951, the United Nations passed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (known as the Refugee Convention). The aim of this was to protect persons, in the wake of the Second World War, being returned to states and nations where they would suffer persecution. It was the first codification of a practice which is in fact centuries old; that of developed countries offering protection and sanctuary to individuals who suffer such persecution. Since its inception and ratification, the Refugee Convention has been viewed variously as a positive advance, and increasingly in recent years, as a hindrance to the United Kingdom’s policies of migration control. Although no country has ever withdrawn from the Convention, this option has been suggested in Britain as a possible solution to the perceived problems relating to immigration which the UK faces.
How is it, then, that a country that prides itself on its history of providing sanctuary and protection to refugees, can be contemplating such a withdrawal from the codification of immigrant policy? The truth is that the belief of the United Kingdom’s relationship with immigrants is somewhat less appealing than the ‘proud history’ of public perception suggests. Nor is this proud history the only myth relating to the UK’s relationship with immigration. It is similarly untrue to state that the UK is an immigration honey pot. The UK is certainly an attractive place for genuine refugees from persecution to approach. Official figures and patterns, however, suggest that the reality is somewhat different and that the scare-mongering and rabble-rousing employed by anti-immigrationists is somewhat misplaced.
What, then, is a refugee? It is interesting that while persons and populations fleeing their homelands to escape persecution and suffering is as old as any civilisation, the term ‘refugee’ is itself a relatively modern and highly specific term. One tends to think of ‘refugees’ as any in-migrant to, in this case, the British Isles, whether they be fleeing political or economic persecution, or indeed, in some cases, whether they are simply seeking a better life in a new country. The modern, accepted definition of a refugee is to be found in Article 1 of the Refugee Convention, which describes a refugee as any person who has been considered a refugee under various other agreements, but more specifically, to a person who
as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or, owing to such fears, is unwilling to return to it.
There follows various provisions for a person so described ceasing to be classed as a refugee, for example where that person has re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.