13 October 1989 - 15 October 1989

Political and Economic Refugees: Problems of Migration, Asylum and Re-Settlement

Chair: Sir John Thomson GCMG

In approaching this conference, I decided, in consultation with the conference’s chairman, to try the experiment, at least in my time here, of having only two groups, each addressing the same subject but approaching it from different ends. Thus Group A was asked to approach the topic with the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 as a starting point, and Group B from the other end of the spectrum, the economic migrants. Both groups necessarily had to grapple with definitions and to consider what was called the grey area, those others who, while not “Convention refugees”, were nevertheless displaced from their homes under some form of compulsion.

Debate on all three days was marked by realism but also by some clear differences of opinion and attitude. Some points were nevertheless agreed. First, all agreed that both in principle and for practical reasons the Convention should not be tampered with: the definition in it was satisfactory (a person who “... owing to 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... is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”). Although judgement of what amounted to persecution was subjective and liable to restrictive interpretation, it was generally felt that any attempt to broaden the definition risked reducing the rights of those who qualified: the wider the category, the less willing would governments be to grant rights over-riding their immigration policies. Nevertheless unreasonably restrictive interpretation had to be combatted - an example was given of an argument that persecution on grounds of colour did not fall within the literal terms of the Convention. Indeed it was argued, but not I think agreed by all, that persecution should cover acts not only of commission but of omission (e.g. failure by a government to protect a person from violence at the hands of others): it was agreed, however, that persecution must involve some infringement of human rights, but that such rights needed to be narrowly drawn. A difficult case could arise when a refugee from country A, applying in country B for asylum in country C, sought to exercise a right of choice of destination not granted by the Convention.

The question arose of where decisions under the Convention were taken and by whom: the visa officer, or even the airline clerk, might be used to prevent the would-be refugee from reaching first base under the Convention, since that requires him to be outside his country.

Compliance with the Convention was discussed. Non-compliance would take the form of anything from restrictive interpretation to “humane deterrence”, to forcible repatriation. It was agreed that the only effective weapon against non-compliance was pressure of public opinion, of other governments and to a limited extent of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: it was not practicable to make the Convention justiciable (though advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice, for example, might be helpful). Nor could the UNHCR play a strong role as watch-dog (though his mandate permits him to supervise the working of the Convention), since he was dependent for most of his funding on voluntary contributions from the very governments he would have to monitor. Some independent body to monitor compliance and the records of both generating and receiving countries was needed. Amnesty International already conducted such an exercise in the field of human rights. That might be an appropriate base for the creation of “a strategy of shame”.

At the other end of the scale from the Convention refugees, there were the economic migrants. There was little discussion of these: the conclusion must be that, if properly identified, they fall to be dealt with by each country under normal immigration rules.

In between there was the grey area, - people, sometimes in great numbers, who had fled their homes for a variety of reasons, war, generalised violence, famine, flood, earthquake, etc, not amounting to persecution but often involving some degree of infringement of human rights. The conference did not attempt a precise definition and various designations - temporary refugees, social-economic refugees, displaced persons category I and so on - were suggested and rejected. All agreed, however, that such persons deserved protection as indeed is recognised in the mandate of the UNHCR. As to rights beyond that, there was no clear consensus. Some argued that they could often be regarded and treated as temporary: as soon as the conditions which caused their flight reverted to normal, they would return home, though there are obvious limitations to that hope, especially where the conditions continue for a number of years. Similarly, on how to handle this very human problem, there was no general agreement, beyond the need to strengthen the UNHCR, both by the active support and interest of governments, and by more, and more reliable, funding, with an accent on developmental aid designed not only to sustain the refugees themselves but also to encourage host governments to continue to accommodate them.

Other points made included the following: (a) the problem was likely to grow rather than recede; (b) there was a need for some independent, credible, source of information about, and assessment of, the situation in areas not only where refugees already existed, but where there was a potential problem; (c) nations, acting together or through the UN, needed to take into account the refugee problem when considering situations of instability. The body proposed in (b) could play a part here. The probable explosion of refugees from Cambodia, for example, ought to be a factor in the major powers’ approach and since direct pressure, e.g. on China, was ineffective, might lead them to look at indirect pressure on the Khmer Rouge e.g. through Thailand; (d) the level of public consciousness had to be raised, both by appealing to humanitarian instincts and by bringing out the contribution that refugees make to the economy and culture of receiving states; (e) decisions on refugee status should be taken on the basis of law and precedent, without discrimination on grounds of politics, race, colour or religion, and without regard to immigration or foreign policy considerations (though there might be special and rare cases). Thus there was a case for some form of independent adjudication - some argued strongly that the establishment in Canada of the Immigration and Refugee Board had, by taking the decision from the Minister, removed the issue from political controversy; (f) an independent body to monitor compliance was required, a role perhaps for Amnesty International; (g) a proposal that some new international instrument, whether on a global or perhaps preferably on a regional basis, was needed to define and establish norms for the treatment of the “grey area’’ persons, was canvassed but on balance, I think, rejected. Much of the contents of such an instrument was already in UN resolutions: it might be better to build on that, e.g. by codifying them, and to use existing bodies, e.g. the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); (h) the UNHCR’s organisation needed to be strengthened and given more, and more reliable, funding. On present figures, the UNHCR faced a crisis.

The areas of the developing world where the greatest number of refugees existed were not represented, but participants were well aware of the humanitarian aspects, of the pressures of population and environmental conditions (ecological refugees) and of the potential drive for a more equal distribution of resources, all of which could lead to growing movements of peoples. They were also conscious, however, of the political limitations on the receiving governments, mostly in the developed world.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir John Thomson GCMG
Retired as UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1982-87); Director, Grindlay’s Bank (1987-); Director, 21st Century Trust


Mr A R Brenton

Head, United Nations Department, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London
Mr Alf Dubs
Director, British Refugee Council; member, Broadcasting Standards Council
The Rt Hon the Baroness Ewart-Biggs
Life Peer (Labour); spokesman on overseas development; an opposition whip; President, British Committee, UNICEF         
Mr D H Gillmore CMG   

Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Dr Barbara E Harrell-Bond
Director, Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford
Mr Robert Mauthner
Deputy Foreign Editor/Diplomatic Correspondent, The Financial Times
Sir Hal Miller MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Bromsgrove
Mrs Nuala Mole
Executive Director, Interights, London
Mr R M Morris
Deputy Director, Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford                        
Dr Brenda Mullan

Deputy Director, Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford
Mr Alan Phillips
Director, The Minority Rights Group
Professor John Vincent 
Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics
Mr Ben Whitaker
Director, The Gulbenkian Foundation (UK); UK Member, UN Human Rights Sub-Commission

Professor Howard Adelman       

Director, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, Ontario; member, Social Welfare Committee, York University; Founder and Adviser of Operation Lifeline, the Campaign to Help the Boat People; Editor, Refugee
Mr Gordon Fairweather
Chairman, Immigration and Refugee Board
Professor James Hathaway
Associate Dean, and Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Ontario

Herr Arnulf Mattes

Minister, Head of Immigration Division, Legal Department, Foreign Office, Bonn 

Ms Amrita Rangasami

Director, Centre of Administration of Relief, India; Currently Visiting Research Fellow, Refugee Studies Programme. Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

Mr A E Dewey

Deputy to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva

Ambassador Diego C Asencio

Chairman, Commission for the Study of International Migration and Co-operative Economic Development, Washington
Mr Peter D Bell
President, The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, New York; Vice Chairman, Inter-American Dialogue; Vice Chairman, Americas Watch; Director, CARE; Trustee, World Peace Foundation
Rev Fr Harold Bradley SJ
Director, Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University  
Mr Muzaffar Chishti

Lawyer and Director, Immigration Project, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; Secretary, National Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Forum; member, Executive Committee, National Coalition for Haitian Refugees; member, Advisory Committee, New York State Interagency Task Force on Immigration, New York City Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Immigration and the 1990 Census Complete Count Committee
Dr Richard W Day
Minority Chief Counsel, Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, Committee on the Judiciary, US Senate
Mr Dennis Gallagher
Founder and Executive Director, the Refugee Policy Group
Mr Dale de Haan
Commissioner, Commission on International Migration & Co-operative Economic Development, US Congress; Director, Church World Service Immigration & Refugee Program, New York; Trustee, Refugee Policy Group, Washington; Editorial Board, International Migration Review; Member, International Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Remo; Board member, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, Geneva
Mr Arthur C Helton
Director, Refugee Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights; Adjunct Associate Professor of Law, New York University School of Law; Chairman, Advisory Committee, New York State Inter- Agency Task Force on Immigration Affairs; Member, Civil Rights Committee
Mr Luke Lee
Director of Plans and Programs, Office of the US Co-ordinator for Refugee Affairs
Professor David A Martin
School of Law, University of Virginia
Ms Sylvia J Rosales-Fike
Executive Director, Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN); President, Washington Center for Central American Studies; Board member and Secretary, Sane/Freeze Educational Fund; Board member, National Agenda for Peace in El Salvador; Co-Chair, “No Human Being is Illegal” Campaign with Mr Elie Wiesel; Board member, Shelter for the Homeless; Steering Committee member, Housing NOW, National March for the Homeless; Advisory Board member, Catholic Charities Immigration Services Project              
Mrs William Taft IV

Recently Director, Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, Agency for International Develop­ment (1986-June 1989)
Mr Jerry M Tinker
Staff Director, Subcommittee on Immigration & Refugee Affairs, US Senate, Washington
Mr Roger Winter
Director, US Committee for Refugees (USCR)
Dr Aristide R Zolberg
University-in-Exile Professor, Department of Political Science, Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, New York City