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International refugee protection 50 years on: The protection challenges of the past, present and future

30-09-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 843, by Erika Feller

Erika Feller
is Director of the Department of International Protection, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 


Headlines repeatedly proclaim: “Experts meet in Dublin to discuss child asylum seekers”; “More refugees flee to the Gambia from Senegal’s Casamance province”; “73 illegal immigrants detained in Austria at weekend”; “UNHCR to repatriate more Tanzanian refugees in Kenya”; “Afghanistan: Taliban impose Islamic law on aid workers”; “East Timorese refugees in West Timor to vote on repatriation”; “Residents, army fear rebel assault on Burundi capital”; “1,600 Sudanese refugees enter Uganda”; “Scotland: asylum hate'shames city'”; “Immigrants are seeking asylum in outdated law”. These are just some of the press headlines featuring refugee issues in May/June 2001.
To begin to appreciate the scale of humanitarian need underlying the work of international refugee protection, it is enough to look at refugee statistics showing that UNHCR has responsibility for some 22 million persons in 160 countries, of which the majority are women, children and the elderly. While there is little cause for celebration of the 50th anniversary of UNHCR and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees , it provides an opportunity to reflect seriously on the point now reached in refugee protection and where it could or should go from here.
This article first outlines the refugee protection regime and its key components, then it portrays past developments in the refugee field, looks into the question as to whether the 1951 Convention is outdated and takes stock of current protection challenges. Finally, it illustrates the current dialogue on how these challenges could be met.  

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