Why Don't Some Countries Sign the Refugee Convention?

I spoke in parliament last night about one of the central questions in the refugee debate - why have many countries in our region chosen not to sign the refugee convention?
Dealing with Non-Signatories to the Refugee Convention, 11 September 2012

In recent months much of the debate in Australia over refugees has centred around whether countries with which we deal have signed the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. For the coalition I think this is largely just another excuse to say no. Let us face it, refugee policy in the Howard years was hardly characterised by a great deference to international law. But there are many people of goodwill who I meet at my community forums and mobile offices who ask me, quite reasonably, why the government wants to deal with a non-signatory country. I wish to use the chance this evening to answer that question.

Broadly, there are three sets of countries. There are rich countries that are able to enforce their border protection—for example, OECD nations are almost entirely signatories. Then there are poor countries to which many refugees would not wish to go. Somalia is one country that comes to mind. Again, they are happy to sign the convention. Then there is a third group of countries—those poorer countries situated close to refugee sending nations. In many cases these countries are not signatories. As a branch member in the ACT, Barbara Phi, has pointed out to me, countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are non-signatories, and they are non-signatories for various reasons. Chief among those reasons is that they do not wish to attract refugees from neighbouring countries.

The reality is that the refugee convention was created to deal with the mass flight of refugees from war ravaged Europe in the 1950s. The reality now is that people are fleeing in much greater numbers. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2011 Pakistan had 1.7 million refugees. As a result, there are substantial resource implications for such countries of signing the refugee convention. The costs of processing asylum seeker claims and meeting education, health and housing obligations can be prohibitive for poorer nations. For those bordering refugee-sending nations, these obligations are a very real resource issue.

In April 2007, the Malaysian foreign ministry's parliamentary secretary told the news outlet Malaysiakini it would not officially recognise refugees since:

The government is of the opinion that if Malaysia becomes party to the Convention, considering its strategic geographical location in the region, it would be a drawing factor for refugees to come to Malaysia.

Malaysia is concerned that, were it to sign the refugee convention, it would be obliged to resettle close to 100,000 people in its camps. A recent UNHCR evaluation on the protection of urban refugees reported Malaysia 'considers the task of providing refugees with protection, assistance and solutions to be the responsibility of the international community'. It went on:

While refugees and asylum seekers are tolerated, it was on the clear condition that UNHCR provides any resources and services associated with their presence.

I am committed to international agreements; I support the aims of the refugee convention. But we must realise the context in which the refugee convention was built. Even the opposition spokesperson, the member for Cook, has said the refugee convention 'no longer reflects the practical reality'. The practical reality is that we are in a region in which many of our neighbours are non-signatories to the convention, and if you want a regional framework then that necessitates dealing with non-signatory countries.

The Houston report recommended that we establish bilateral agreements in the short term while working towards a longer term regional framework under the Bali process. That means that we have an international agreement that is able to share appropriate responsibility for the 3.6 million refugees in our regions. That is why we have endorsed the recommendations of the Houston report and have made the necessary compromises, many of them painful, to stop the politicking and make sure people do not risk their lives at sea.

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8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au