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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 29
July 21, 2007

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Human Rights Advocacy
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Human Rights Advocacy

Refugees status, UN Convention and Bangladesh

Khan Ferdousour Rahman

According to the UN Charter and Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 everyone has the right to a nationality and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his/her nationality nor denied the right to change his/her nationality. 56 years ago in 1951, representatives from 26 countries drafted and adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in Geneva. From then onward so far a total of over 50 million people have been sheltered through international refugee protection under the Convention.

As per the decision of the General Assembly, a UN Conference of Plenipotentiaries met at Geneva in 1951 to draft a Convention regulating to the legal status of refugees. As a result of their deliberations, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted on 28 July 1951 under General Assembly resolution 429 (V) of December 14, 1950 and entered into force on April 22, 1954 upon submission of the 6th instrument of accession in accordance with Article 43. The Convention consolidates previous international instruments relating to refugees and provides the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees yet attempted on the international level. It lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to the granting by States of more favourable treatment. The Convention is applied without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin, and contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. .

It has a preamble, divided in seven chapters with 46 Articles. Chapter I (Article 1-11) deals with general provisions, Chapter II (Article 12-16) with juridical status, Chapter III (Article 17-19) with gainful employment, Chapter IV (Article 20-24) with welfare, Chapter V (Article 25-34) with administrative measures, Chapter VI (Article 35-37) with executory and transitory provisions, and Chapter VII (Article 38-46) with final clauses. Article 1 of the Convention provides the definition of a refugee “A person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” It was initially limited to protecting European refugees after World War II, but a 1967 Protocol removed the geographical and time limits, expanding the Convention's scope under which mainly Europeans involved in events occurring before January 01, 1951 could apply for refugee status. Denmark was the first state to ratify the treaty on December 04, 1952 and there are now 145 signatories to either or both the Convention and Protocol.

It was the first truly international agreement covering the most fundamental aspects of a refugee's life. It spelled out a set of basic human rights which should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and in many cases those of citizens of that state. It recognised the international scope of refugee crises and the necessity of international cooperation, including burden sharing among states, in tackling the problem.

The UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is an international convention that is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grants it. The Convention also sets out which people do not qualify as refugees, such as war criminals. It provides for some visa-free travel for holders of travel documents issued under the Convention. Other than defining the term 'refugee', it also outlines a refugee's rights including such things as freedom of religion and movement, the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents in passport form. Most States, parties to the Convention, issue this document. It also underscores a refugee's obligations to a host government. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution.

International protection is based on human rights principles. Certain provisions of the Convention are considered so fundamental that no reservations may be made to them. Since the refugees do not enjoy the protection of the country of origin, the international community must come forward to provide that protection. For international protection one could rely on international legal Conventions and Declarations adopted by the UN or by the regional organizations. Accession has also been recommended by various regional organisations, such as the European Council, the Organisation of African Unity, and the Organisation of American States. By establishing the UNHCR in 1949, the UN reaffirmed and recognised the responsibilities of UN for the international protection of refugees.

It is to be mentioned here that no country from the SAARC region became party to the Convention. But all the countries have a traditional and long experience of providing shelter and attaching dignity to the refugees. Bangladeshi people became refugee in India for nine months in 1971. Bangladesh has also been confronted with the flow of refugees from Myanmar. According to UNHCR, around 26,000 Rohingya refugees have been living in Bangladesh and a total of 2,36,599 have been so far repatriated since 1992, when a influx of refugees came from Arakan in Myanmar following religious and political persecutions.

Signing of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees by Bangladesh can give a legal framework and certain rights for the protection of the refugees in the region. This is not emotional rather an obligation to the international community. The signing of the Convention will also increase the reputation and good will of Bangladesh in the international arena.

The writer is a freelancer on legal and rights issues.


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