Danish call to lessen obligation to take in refugees criticised

UN backlash against call to scale back Geneva convention on refugees

A high-level proposal to reduce western obligations to refugees risks the destruction of “a milestone of humanity” and would “renounce millennia” of human progress, two senior UN officials have said in separate interviews.

The comments are in response to the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who said last week he wanted to "change the rules of the game" by rolling back the 1951 refugee convention, the UN treaty signed in Geneva in the aftermath of the second World War that obliges its signatories to offer asylum to people fleeing danger.

Mr Rasmussen mooted changing the treaty so refugees could be sent back to transit countries such as Turkey, the springboard for most Syrian and Afghan refugees who attempt to reach Europe. Under the convention, refugees cannot be returned to Turkey because it does not recognise the rights of refugees from the Middle East.

With more than a million asylum seekers reaching Europe by sea last year, and with no legislative means of rejecting many of their applications, Mr Rasmussen now wants to scale back Europe’s obligation to provide them with sanctuary.


In a TV interview, he was quoted as saying: "If this continues or gets worse, we will get to the point where we'll have to talk – and Denmark won't be able to do it alone – about adjusting the rules of the game."

Geneva Convention

In response, two UN officials have warned against dismantling a treaty rights watchdogs see as one of the crowning achievements of the post-Holocaust era. In an interview with the


, François Crépeau, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said: “We shouldn’t touch the Geneva Convention. The refugee convention is the embodiment of an age-old institution. In every civilisation, there has always been [the concept of] asylum – in Greek tragedy, in the Bible – [and] the refugee convention is an modern embodiment of this age-old asylum tradition. Refugee protection is at the root of many civilisations and to take that away would be to renounce millennia of a tradition of hospitality.”

In separate comments, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, said: "The refugee convention has saved millions of lives and is one of the greatest human rights instruments . . . It is a milestone of humanity developed in the wake of massive population movements that exceeded even the magnitude of what we see today. At its core the convention embodies fundamental humanitarian values.

“The biggest challenge to refugee protection is most certainly not the convention itself but rather ensuring states comply with it. The real need is to find more effective ways to implement it in a spirit of international co-operation and responsibility-sharing.”

Mr Crépeau, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, argued the refugee crisis need not place a particularly high burden on western countries. He cites the aftermath of the Vietnam war as a precedent, when the countries of the global north resettled millions of refugees from Indochina with no long-term negative effects.

Collective action

Mr Crépeau said: “If we decided collectively as global north countries – the 28 EU countries plus US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, representing 900 million inhabitants – that we would resettle four million Syrians over the next eight years at 500,000 per year, [which is] half the number that


has received this year, divided between the 32 countries, it would be very small. For the UK it would be around 35,000. It’s a very manageable number.”

If not, Mr Crépeau warns people will come anyway. “As long as Europeans are not able to sit down and agree such a programme, well it’ll [continue to] be chaos on the beaches. It’s shooting oneself in the foot because there will be another one million more people coming this year. If people are coming in the winter when it’s cold, imagine the rate in the summer.”

To reduce the flow of refugees across Europe, several countries including Denmark have introduced border checks – upending the concept of free movement within most of the EU enshrined by the Schengen agreement in 1985, a treaty regarded as one of the greatest achievements of European integration.– (Guardian service)