Statement of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants on the 70th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention

By USCRI July 28, 2021

On today’s 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, USCRI reflects on the progress made over the past 70 years in the rights of refugees.  In the aftermath of World War II, states came together to define who a refugee is and to lay out refugees’ fundamental human rights and the world’s obligation to ensure those rights.

Today, according to a recent UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) report, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has exceeded 80 million for the first time since World War II.  The vast majority of these refugees and IDPs languish in dreadful and isolated refugee camps or urban slums for decades or even generations, without hope or human dignity, and forgotten by the international community.

Unfortunately, given the proliferation of global conflict and terrorism, the international community often willfully ignores the fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, such as the rights to freedom of movement, freedom to work, freedom to own property, and freedom to choose where to live.  Although refugee camps are not mentioned in the 1951 Convention, in the last 70 years, the international community has made “refugee camp policy” a long-term strategy of indefinite confinement in host countries. This policy of confinement has succeeded in keeping Eritrean refugees in Sudan since 1968, Sahrawi refugees in Algeria since 1975, and Somali refugees in Kenya since 1991, in uninhabitable camps with no viable future.

One of the most fundamental but often overlooked rights enshrined in the Convention is the right to freedom of movement in Article 26.  Refugees living in camps are often denied the freedom of movement, either by host countries’ laws or because of physical access issues.  In 2020, UNHCR estimated that 77% of the world’s refugees live in protracted situations of long-term forced displacement.  About 6 million refugees live in refugee camps that UNCHR defines as “temporary facilities [that] are not established to provide permanent solutions.”  Some of these refugees have lived in camps for up to thirty years, with new generations of children and grandchildren being born in the camps.  Often, conditions in the camps are unsanitary, overpopulated, and lacking in basic resources such as food, clean water, sanitation facilities, and quality schools.  The practice of keeping refugees living in camps long-term without freedom of movement is refugee warehousing. And the practice of refugee warehousing was not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The right to free movement and the world’s responsibility to prevent refugee warehousing are now more important than ever.  By the end of 2020, over 82 million people were displaced from their homes around the globe, with more than 30 million crossing international borders and becoming refugees.  Over half of the world’s refugees are children.  This means that one in every 95 people on Earth has fled their home as a result of conflict, persecution, or other life-threatening dangers.  This has resulted in the overcrowding of refugee camps where refugees can languish for decades without access to basic human needs and rights.  The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the dangers of camp overcrowding, and refugees remain trapped in dire conditions.

Given the unprecedented global refugee crisis and the pandemic, USCRI calls on UNHCR to stop using refugee camps to keep refugees trapped in desperate conditions of protracted displacement.  To solve the warehousing crisis, other countries must also step up to do their part, both through financial contributions and resettling more refugees.  USCRI urges the U.S. government to continue to rebuild the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as quickly as possible and to raise next year’s refugee admissions goal to 125,000.  Doing so will allow USCRI to continue serving the world’s most vulnerable people with dignity and will demonstrate America’s commitment to ending refugee warehousing.

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