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Colonial roots of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its effects on the global refugee regime

A Correction to this article was published on 16 March 2021

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The founding of the 1951 Refugee Convention and today’s global refugee regime have mainly been linked to the Second World War and to the early phase of the Cold War in research. But what role does colonialism play here? This article complements Postcolonial and Ignorance Studies and uses online archival research to explore debates among state delegations about the Convention’s refugee definition and ‘colonial clause’ at the founding conference (2–25 July 1951). It illuminates delegations’ strategic production of knowledge and especially ignorance—meaning the construction of issues as irrelevant—leading to the prioritisation of ‘the West’ over ‘the Rest’. Colonial and imperial states generally dominated debates while colonised ones were excluded, and thus silenced. Despite broad support for the universal refugee definition, several powerful delegations demanded its limitation to Europe and therewith strategically subordinated and ignored the ‘Other’ refugees and regions in pursuit of geopolitical interests. They thus made the colonial ‘Others’ irrelevant in the creation of ‘international’ refugee law. I argue that these debates rendered the Convention’s founding ‘colonial-ignorant’, with lasting effects for the regime’s functioning.

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  1. In this article, the global refugee regime is understood following Betts (2011: 56‒57).

  2. Understandings of the ‘international community’ vary (e.g. Ellis 2009). In this article, I approach the term as an ‘inter-national’ network of sovereign states. This is naturally critical from a postcolonial perspective as only those states recognised as sovereign are assumed part of this network (see Cassese 2012). However, exactly this is key when exploring the colonial roots of the 1951 Convention and global refugee regime; while all colonisers were acknowledged sovereign, colonised states were not and hence would be excluded from the network due to control and representation by colonisers. I consider this tension a mirror of the critical imbalance in power relations along colonial lines, and highlight it by placing the term in quotation marks.

  3. Although these identify distinct forms of colonial rule, I summarise them as colonised territories.

  4. There is insufficient space in this article to list pertinent publications on ‘international’ refugee law that include no or only minimal references to colonialism.

  5. This multidisciplinary field has since broadened to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies (crit. Chimni 2009).

  6. Only four out of 146 states have signed the Convention with a focus on Europe until today (UN 2020) and the 1967 Protocol is thought to tackle the issue (Davies 2007)—but problems remain (see below).

  7. UN Doc. A/RES/8(I), 29 January, 1946.

  8. UN Doc. A/PV.29, 12 February, 1946; UN Doc. A/PV.30, 12 February, 1946.

  9. UN Doc. A/RES/8(I).

  10. UN Doc. E/RES/3(I), 16 February, 1946.

  11. See UN Doc. E/RES/248(IX)A and B, 6 and 8 August, 1949.

  12. UN Doc. E/RES/116(VI), 1 March, 1948; UN Doc. E/1112; E/1112/Add.1, 1 August, 1949.

  13. Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Israel, Turkey, UK, US, Venezuela, Poland and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but the latter two decided not to attend (UN Doc. E/1618; E/AC.35/5, 17 February, 1950, para. 4, 10).

  14. UN Doc. E/RES/248(IX)B.

  15. UN Doc. E/AC.32/2, 3 January, 1950.

  16. UN Doc. E/1618, E/AC.35/5, 12.

  17. UN Doc. E/SR.399, 2 August, 1950, para 29.

  18. UN Doc. E/AC.7/SR.157, 31 July, 1950, 15.

  19. UN Doc. E/AC.7/SR.158, 1 August, 1950, 12.

  20. Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, the UK, the USSR and the US were ECOSOC members; Egypt, Ethiopia, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden, Venezuela and Yugoslavia had observer status (UN Doc. E/INF/40, 2 January, 1951).

  21. UN Doc. E/SR.399, para. 53‒54; UN Doc. E/RES/319(XI)A and B, 16 August, 1950.

  22. UN Doc. E/SR.406, 11 August, 1950.

  23. UN Doc. E/1850; E/AC.32/8, 25 August, 1950.

  24. It is noteworthy that debates addressed the refugee definition in the draft convention as well as UNHCR’s statute. It naturally prompts questions of why different definitions are eventually adopted, but this goes beyond the scope of this particular article.

  25. UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.330, 30 November, 1950, para. 61

  26. UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.325, 24 November, 1950, para. 21‒24.

  27. UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.332, 1 December, 1950, para. 26‒29.

  28. See UN Doc. A/C.3/SR.332, para. 75-80; UN Doc. A/PV.325, 14 December, 1950, para. 95‒97.

  29. UN Doc. A/RES/429(V), 14 December, 1950.

  30. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/108/Rev.1, 25 July, 1951, 3.

  31. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/108/Rev.1: 3.

  32. UN members: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Iraq, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, the US, Venezuela and Yugoslavia; observers: Cuba and Iran; non-members: Austria, Federal Republic of Germany, the Holy See, Italy, Monaco and Switzerland.

  33. The report of the Credential Committee lacks such information (UN Doc. A/CONF.2/87, 17 July, 1951).

  34. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/6/Add.1, 12 March, 1951.

  35. By that I do not intend to indicate that all (de)colonised states are assumed to have similar, overlapping or mutual understandings.

  36. Colonial powers: Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK; former colonial powers: Austria (ended in the 1780s), Federal Republic of Germany (ended 1920), Sweden (ended 1878), Turkey (administered territories as a part of the Ottoman Empire, ended 1922) and Yugoslavia (ended 1941).

  37. Brazil (1822), Colombia (1819), Egypt (1922), Iraq (1932), Israel (1948), Monaco (1861), Venezuela (1821); high political influence: the US (1776), Canada (1931), Australia (1901); Cuba was also a former colony (1898, observer).

  38. Greece (earlier administered by the Ottoman Empire but not as a colony in a narrower sense), the Holy See, Luxembourg, Switzerland (also represented Liechtenstein at the conference); neither Iran (observer).

  39. According to official records, among the invited non-UN member states (UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27, 27 November, 1951), Cambodia and Laos initiated independence in the late 1940s and achieved it in 1953 and 1954 respectively. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) became independent in 1948, Nepal in 1923, Korea in 1948 and Vietnam in 1945.

  40. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/21, 3 July, 1951.

  41. Conference discussions were based on the draft by the Ad Hoc Committee (E/1850 Annex I), the preamble in ECOSOC’s Resolution 319(XI) and article 1 in UNGA Resolution 429(V) (UN Doc. A/CONF.2/1, 12 March, 1951).

  42. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/82/Rev.1, 17 July, 1951.

  43. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/13, 3 July, 1951.

  44. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/76, 13 July, 1951.

  45. UN Doc. A/PV.325: para. 97.

  46. UN Doc. E/1618, E/AC.35/5; E/AC.32/8, UN Doc. E/1850; E/RES/319(XI)B.

  47. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, the Holy See, Iraq, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and Yugoslavia.

  48. Australia, Colombia, France, Italy, the US and Venezuela as well as (with a certain willingness to compromise) Austria, Germany, Sweden and Turkey.

  49. Brazil, Luxembourg and Monaco.

  50. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19, 26 November, 1951.

  51. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.20, 26 November, 1951.

  52. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.20.

  53. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  54. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/75, 13 July, 1951.

  55. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  56. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  57. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.21, 26 November, 1951.

  58. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  59. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.21.

  60. In the article about liberal professions, the original phrase that contracting states were ‘to secure the settlement of such refugees in their colonies, protectorates or in Trust Territories under their administration’ was changed to ‘[t]erritories for the international relations of which it is responsible’, as suggested by France (UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.25, 27 November, 1951).

  61. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  62. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  63. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.20.

  64. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  65. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  66. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.19.

  67. UN Doc. E/AC.32/SR.3, 26 January, 1950.

  68. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/105, 24 July, 1951.

  69. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/108/Rev.1, Art. 1B.

  70. UN Doc. E/AC.32/8, E/1850.

  71. UN Doc. E/AC.32/SR.14, 2 February, 1950.

  72. UN Doc. E/AC.32/SR.25, 17 February, 1950.

  73. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/21.

  74. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/31, 4 July, 1951.

  75. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27.

  76. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27.

  77. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27.

  78. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/6/Add.1.

  79. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27.

  80. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/SR.27.

  81. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/108/Rev.1: Art. 40, sentence 1

  82. UN Doc. A/CONF.2/21.

  83. Conference records do not reveal how participants voted.

  84. Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK (UN 2020).

  85. Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, the Holy See, Israel, Italy, Turkey, the US (UN 2020).


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In the early stages of this research, I was able to discuss ideas about effects of colonialism on refugee protection with Gil Loescher for which I am exceptionally grateful. Gil’s recent passing still saddens me greatly; I recall his inspiring and encouraging comments with great fondness. I am also thankful to Frank Wolff, Timothy Williams and Mariam Salehi for invaluable comments as well as the anonymous reviewers and editors of the JIRD for insightful feedback. I especially thank Reviewer One who dived into my research and provided very helpful and thought-provoking comments.

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Krause, U. Colonial roots of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its effects on the global refugee regime. J Int Relat Dev 24, 599–626 (2021).

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  • 1951 Refugee Convention
  • Global refugee regime
  • Ignorance studies
  • Postcolonial studies