UN chief warns refugee rights would ‘go backwards’ amid populist rhetoric
Gillian Triggs, UN Assistant Secretary-General addressed the One Young World Summit in Belfast.
Opening up the UN Refugee Convention to reform would cause the world to “go backwards” on refugee rights, a UN leader has said.
Gillian Triggs, UN Assistant Secretary-General, told the One Young World Summit in Belfast that there is a “global environment of populist rhetoric” that is damaging to refugees.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention outlines a number of protections for refugees, including basic minimum standards, and asserts they should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
In a trip to Washington DC last week, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman said it should be questioned whether the application of the UN’s Refugee Convention is “fit for our modern age”.
When asked by former broadcast journalist Jacky Rowland, who chaired the panel at the global summit in Belfast, whether the international refugee system was fit for purpose, Ms Triggs said it was a “very dangerous question to ask”.
“Because if we say that the system is not fit for purpose and that we are not meeting the needs of tens of millions – and maybe many more coming with climate change… the problem is that it gives politicians in many countries the opportunity to say: ‘This is not working, the system is broken, we will stop the the boats, we will deny access to asylum, and we will detain people indefinitely, including children,’” she said.
“So by emphasising what is not working, we’re actually feeding into the populist message that the system is not working.
“And can I say, from a UN refugee point of view, from the agency point of view, this system is working across the world a lot of the time.
“But the Refugee Convention, although it is (from) 1951, is actually saving lives all the time and that’s why we’re so grateful to have its point of view.
“If we were to open up the convention to reform it, we would probably go backwards, we would not have what was capable of being achieved in 1951.”
Ms Triggs said there was a “good case to be made” for a new protocol or treaty dealing with climate refugees.
“But again, the risk is that it will actually lead to a lesser level of protection than we have at the moment,” she added.
“So I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be trying, and we should be, but let’s be a little careful because we’re in a global environment of populist rhetoric. That is denigrating people who are seeking protection across national boundaries.”
According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, between 2008 and 2016 an average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced each year by weather-related events such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures.
International think tank the IEP predicts that 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change.
Ms Triggs, a former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said that the UN refugee agency is “scaling up” its capacity to protect climate refugees.
“Very recently, last year or so, we found Lake Chad has been drying up and all its tributaries are dying,” she said.
“We have herders who need grasses for their cattle, we have farmers who are agriculturalists and we have fishermen, all using Lake Chad.
“And as it dries up, the tensions rise, there is conflict and over one week 13,000 people fled across the border into Chad.
“Now that would be a clear example of somebody who is a climate refugee and at the UN Refugee Agency we are trying to scale up our work so that we’re able to protect people in that situation and that they have the benefit of the whole legal regime, right to work to get the children to school, access to health care and so on.”
Ms Triggs also said that defining a climate refugee may be more difficult than when the definition of a refugee was first outlined in 1951.
“But there will be some, and this is where we get into a sort of grey area, is where people have been moved partly as a consequence of climate,” she said.
“We might call it slow onset – there may be years when the grasses are drying up, the rivers are drying up, and bit by bit they move.
“Now, they would be described I think by many as economic migrants. Now it’s clear that international human rights law applies to everybody everywhere, so of course they have a right to get their children to school, but they may not be refugees.”
The One Young World summit has brought thousands of young leaders from over 190 countries to Belfast to discuss global issues.