Background - 29.10.2021 - 00:00 

The Geneva Convention has protected refugees for 70 years

In 1951, the UN adopted a convention concerning the status of border-crossing refugees. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention, the University of St.Gallen invited the general public to a critical debate on flight and migration. The event attracted a large audience.

29 October 2021. The Geneva Convention is still considered to be the most important basis for the protection of refugees under international law. It obliges the signatory states to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement: no one must be expelled to or refused entry from countries in which their lives or liberty would be under threat on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a group or political convictions. The “guardian” of the Geneva Convention on Refugees is the UNHCR.

Established after the Second World War

In his introduction to the debate, Christoph Frei, Professor of International Affairs at the HSG, explained the significance of the convention and its achievements. He reminded the audience that the convention was set up in order to help the millions of people after the Second World War who had lost their homes or taken flight during the war. Originally, it was thought that the refugee problem would be solved after three years. However, reality looks different: at present, more than 82 million people are deemed to be refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, asylum-seekers or returnees.

Although the Geneva Convention on Refugees only regulated an absolute minimum, it was amazing that it came into existence at all in 1951, Christoph Frei emphasised. “Sovereign countries are only prepared to sign treaties if they can expect to profit from them. If they can’t, they don’t like to be tied down.” Therefore it had been a difficult enterprise to persuade the sovereign states of the necessity of refugees needing protection and support.

Participation and equal opportunities for everyone

Under the moderation of political scientist Claudia Brühwiler, the discussion about flight and migration was joined by Peter Tobler, head of the Municipal Office for Social Issues, the Zurich expert in international law Oliver Diggelmann and HSG Professor Jelena Tošić. Peter Tobler provided insights into the reality of refugees in the City of St.Gallen. It was not a simple path that refugees had to follow in order to be considered to be integrated in Switzerland, he explained. With regard to refugee policy, the City of St.Gallen had come to realise that a strong civil society made a crucial contribution towards the success of integration. Particularly since integration worked through living together, the City was investing in quarters. The aim was to improve participation and equal opportunities for everyone.

In the course of the decades, the refugee discourse had developed into an actual defence against asylum seekers, Oliver Diggelmann emphasised in this short address. Whereas people had still accepted refugees from Czechoslovakia and Hungary with goodwill, their fear of being swamped by foreigners had increased after people from more remote countries had crossed the border. People’s attitude towards migrant workers had also changed since many people from poorer countries of the southern hemisphere had streamed into Europe looking for a better life.

Jelena Tošić talked about developments in research on migration and flight. She is working on the anthropology of migration and conducting research into the interconnections between migration flows and processes of social transformation. Academics in various countries are working on topical research projects and exploring such issues as dealing with life and death at the EU’s external borders, the way authorities treat juvenile refugees caught between child protection and asylum law, and the authorities’ construction of evidence and credibility in asylum procedures.

International cooperation is indispensable

In the subsequent discussion, the emphasis was on the necessity of international cooperation. Migration flows and their concomitant problems could only be solved by means of consistent cooperation. Participants in the discussion also agreed that there weren’t any easy answers to the effects of migration and flight and that every new kind of action often also entailed the danger of a new dilemma.

False incentives boosted migration flows, Oliver Diggelmann explained, for example. “It’s a tragic problem that rescue operations at sea increase the attraction of flight.” It was far more effective to fight the causes of flight. But western countries were still finding this very difficult to do.

Text: Claudia Schmid

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