THE BLOG

On the Anniversary of the Refugee Convention, We Must Not Close Our Doors to Refugees

28/07/2015 21:01 BST | Updated 28/07/2016 10:59 BST

Sixty-four years ago in an unremarkable room in Geneva, a life saving commitment was made.

It was the summer of 1951 and the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in everyone's minds. Millions of people had been massacred and millions more uprooted. But legal protection and assistance for these displaced people was basic.

Something had to be done. After three intense weeks of legal wrangling, a room full of men from 26 countries adopted the Refugee Convention - the Magna Carta of international refugee law.

Through the Refugee Convention, the legal definition of a refugee was clarified and the fundamental principle that people should not be forcibly sent back to countries where they could be persecuted has become the cornerstone of international refugee law. British lawyers were instrumental in its drafting.

It's been 64 years since the Refugee Convention was adopted, and although it's been modified slightly, its underlying principles have proved life saving.

Fast forward to 2015. Once again, people around the world are being forced to flee tyranny and conflict on an unprecedented scale.

According to the latest statistics from the UN's Refugee Agency (UNHCR), nearly 60 million people around the world have been displaced. Around 20 million have been forced to flee their countries and have become refugees.

The majority face decades spent waiting hopelessly in swelling refugee camps and precarious makeshift urban dwellings for outside assistance. When we talk about durable solutions for refugees, this isn't what we mean: a life with little food and no future. But for the vast majority of refugees, help, in the form of a resettlement place to a rich state, will never come.

For years, these people have been kept conveniently out of sight and out of mind of the western world, with developing countries shouldering the responsibility for protecting the majority of the world's refugees.

But the scale of the refugee crisis currently facing the world is facing is off the charts and many of these countries have reached their capacity. They're trying their best, but they simply can't cope and refugees are understandably being forced to travel onwards and look for safety elsewhere.

We can witness the shameful evidence of this on our own doorstep as refugees are forced to take deadly risks on the Mediterranean in their desperation to escape the killing zones.

Europe's current focus on addressing this refugee crisis by strengthening border controls deliberately ignores the role our hostile immigration policies have played in creating this shameful humanitarian catastrophe.

At the moment, it's virtually impossible for refugees to travel to Europe and Britain safely and legally in order to seek protection: that's why people are forced into the hands of smugglers.

During Europe's darkest days, western nations shamefully turned boatloads of Jewish refugees away from safety. Sixty-four years ago as we adopted the Refugee Convention we vowed never to make those mistakes again. As borders across Europe close to refugees it appears we are in danger of forgetting the lessons of history.

But it isn't too late.

As a global leader, David Cameron has the chance to act.

Britain must no longer watch on impassively pretending this is someone else's problem; the Prime Minister must act in the spirit of the Refugee Convention and place saving lives ahead of domestic politics by offering alternative routes to safety for those who desperately need them. It's time Britain tackled this crisis head on by offering thousands of additional resettlement places and make it easier for refugees to reunite with their loved ones already living in safety in Britain.

The Refugee Convention is frequently called the wall behind which refugees can shelter. Of course this wall is metaphorical; it's supposed to symbolise protection. But around the world, the walls and fences governments are building to keep people out are all too real.

Plainly building the walls of fortress Europe ever higher will only force refugees to take ever greater risks in their attempts to reach safety. Instead, a focus on sharing responsibility for protecting some of the world's most desperate people is sorely needed. Lives depend on it.