70 years of debated legislation: what impact does the UN Refugee Convention have in states that have not signed it?

Does the Refugee Convention still have an impact in states that have not signed it? How do these states actually contribute to the development of international refugee law?  Maja Janmyr will discover the answers to these and other questions when she kicks off the ERC Starting Grant project entitled BEYOND.


To 'ratify' means that a state approves an agreement pertaining to international law and undertakes to comply with it. Many of the countries in the world that accept the most refugees have neither signed nor ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.

2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, a much disputed convention. Professor Maja Janmyr at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights believes that next year will be exactly the right time for discussing the past and future of this convention.

The full title of the BEYOND project is "Protection without Ratification? International Refugee Law beyond States Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention”. This 5-year project will be conducted under the leadership of Professor Janmyr.  Her application to the EU and the European Research Council was accepted in 2019 and the project has been granted NOK 15 million over a 5-year period in order to conduct research on the impact of the UN’s Refugee Convention on states that have not ratified it.

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States can be both "insiders" and "outsiders"

“Why have you chosen to conduct research on this particular topic? What aroused your personal interest and involvement as a researcher?”

"I have several years of research behind me on how Lebanon is handling the large number of refugees who sought protection there as a result of the war in Syria. This research revealed a paradox: Lebanon has not signed the UN Refugee Convention despite the fact the country helped to draft the Convention seventy years ago, and despite the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, has been present in Lebanon since 1963, and that the country is also a member of the UNHCR's governing body. This body has a mandate to interpret the Convention and guide the work of the UNHCR. Lebanon can thus be seen as both an insider and an outsider in the international legal work carried out in order to protect refugees. I asked myself if perhaps this might also apply to other countries that had not signed the convention?

This research work revealed a paradox: Lebanon has not signed the UN Refugee Convention despite the fact the country helped to draft the Convention seventy years ago

"A big black hole"

"The project looks at the Refugee Convention’s impact on states that have not ratified it and how such states contribut towards the development of international refugee law. This topic is so important that the ERC has chosen to fund your project. Why is it so important to find out?”

"About one quarter of the UN’s member states have not ratified the UN Refugee Convention. Does that mean that international refugee law does not exist in these countries? These countries are often just a big black hole in the academic literature in my field, despite the fact that they are some of the most important host countries for refugees. Take Pakistan for instance, which has been providing protection for Afghan refugees for decades, or Bangladesh which has taken the lion's share of Rohingya refugees. I had identified a gap in our understanding of the impact of the Refugee Convention. When the Convention now celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2021, that will be an optimal time for discussing the past and future of this Convention,” says Professor Janmyr.

“Why is the UN Refugee Convention controversial today, and what do think the alternative might be?”

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In 2021, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention will be 70 years old. Copyright: © Arni/UN Archives (unhcr.org).

"Refugee protection is a highly politicised issue, and several states are now openly questioning whether or not the Refugee Convention is still relevant. For example, in 2018 the Australian Minister for Home Affairs proclaimed that "like-minded" states should come together and rethink the Convention. He believed that it was outdated and failed to take the current situation into account. We've seen similar discussions here in Norway as well.”

Refugee legislation "undergoing a crisis"

In other words, international refugee law is undergoing a crisis in terms of legitimacy, which is partly due to the fact that there are no courts or other similar bodies to ensure that states uphold their obligations under the Convention. Moreover, the Convention says nothing about how responsibility for the world's refugees should be shared.

"I believe that it is precisely in a situation such as this that we should look more closely at the impact of the Convention both globally and locally."

“How might refugees be affected by the fact that some states have chosen not to sign the Refugee Convention?”

“We don’t know! The point of departure in most discussions in my academic field has been that signing the Refugee Convention almost automatically strengthens the rights of refugees. Full stop. Obviously it is difficulty to gauge this empirically, but the starting point is based solely on an assumption that the protection of refugees is strong in states that are party to the Convention and weak in countries that are not. However, the difficult situation experienced by refugees in many countries that have ratified the convention, means that we actually should question such an assumption," says Professor Janmyr.

The point of departure in most discussions in my academic field has been that signing the Refugee Convention almost automatically strengthens the rights of refugees.

“But I would like to point out here that my project does not aim to compare protection in countries that are party to the Convention with those that are not – my primary aim is to explain the relationship between the Convention and those countries that have not signed it. Based on the project’s findings, perhaps we will also be able to say something about the more general impact of the Convention, but I would prefer to wait and see what we find.”

States can be "socialised" to comply with norms and principles

“How could the UN’s Refugee Convention affect states that have not signed it, and how can such states have an impact on international refugee legislation?”

“The findings I have already made in my research in Lebanon suggest that the number of different actors who are involved can “socialise" states into the norms and principles of international refugee law. One of the most important actors in this respect is the UNHCR, which is working on the ground in many of these countries. We also see that civil society and courts in some countries are actively using the Refugee Convention and that the norms of international law are being "localised." At the same time, we see that several key states that have not signed the Convention are participating in the global cooperation on the protection of refugees, and helping to create direction and content in this respect.”

“It's going to be hectic!

“What is it like to lead such a project? What will your everyday life be like in the future?”

“It's going to be hectic, to put it mildly! I am already leading a Norwegian Research Council project that is looking at the importance of the Refugee Convention in the Middle East – a region where few states have ratified the Convention. We have established the project team and we are now ready to welcome our project participants to BEYOND. Both projects involve interdisciplinary work and long-term fieldwork  abroad – in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. In my capacity as Principal Investigator, the coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a more unfavourable time, and we will have to make certain adjustments in order to be able to do what we are hoping to do. But the members of my group are intrepid and together we'll overcome the hurdles in our way!" 

(The interview has been translated from Norwegian.)

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By Jorunn Kanestrøm. Video: Jorunn Kanestrøm.
Published Dec. 4, 2020 7:37 AM - Last modified Mar. 11, 2021 10:40 AM