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Attacking the Refugee Convention


Could there be a global revolution (read paper shredding operation) on refugee law in the offing? Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has commenced his effort to survive the next election, has began an all out offensive against the Refugee Convention, a United Nations document that remains the great headache of policy makers across the globe.

Sacrosanct, inviolable obligations such as non-refoulement (prohibition against sending an arrival back to a country in case of persecution) have been the great eyesore of restraint on governments. Like irate children, they don’t like it. Sometimes, they ignore it.

The revisers are out with their euphemistic labels: they want ‘reform’. They want to modernise. They want to flip the cart on the rights lobby. Reform remains the weasel word of the radical conservative prat. As Australian governments have made conservatism the stable orthodoxy, Rudd had deigned to adopt a strategy that is, like him, new but old, revolutionary but musty. Should he win in this amorally untidy effort, it will be, as one backbencher termed it, “unity by exhaustion”.

Of course, the techniques of the Rudd arsenal are hardly new. The Howard government, Australia’s own Thatcherite imitation, made slandering both the Refugee Convention and refugees habitual and acceptable. From low fashion to high fashion, rubbishing new arrivals, especially by boat, has not become so much de rigueur as instinctive.

In 2000, Adrienne Millbank, author of Australian Parliamentary Research Paper (No. 5), lamented how the Refugee Convention of 1951 was an irritating anachronism, “that it was developed in and for a different era. Its focus is the resulting problems that have been identified since the late 1980s with the operation of the Convention in Western countries.” Sharpening the focus on the “illegal” arrivals at the end of the 1990s, the report noted how Australia, disappointingly, was “constrained” by how it could deal with them. Eviscerate the old; remove the cobwebs.

What had so significantly changed? “The use by the boat people of people smugglers to circumvent the visa and border controls has prompted Australia to join other countries in openly questioning the operation and continuing viability of the Convention itself.” The logic here: If an obligation is onerous and burdensome, or a right hard to observe, it should be scrapped, lifted, adjusted, moderated. The Convention definition of a refugee was “outdated” along with “its notion of exile as a solution to refugee problems.” It did not offer a “flexible response” to a complex problem.

There was no obligation to share burdens between states. There was an “inequity” in terms of outcomes between “camp” and “Convention” refugees. The more mobile, the more adventurous, and overall, the more desperate, were being rewarded. Never mind the deaths, the appalling lost of life on the seas in travelling between transit states.

Around the same time, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claimed that the Convention was drafted and signed in an era where, “Intercontinental travel was rare, difficult and expensive. Fifty years on, new technology, global communications and cheap international travel have all contributed to a world where rapid long-distance migration is a realistic operation.” Straw’s language resembles that of an unenthusiastic travel agent keen to exclusively serve first class customers and toffs. Poorer applicants need not apply.

The Rudd of 2013 has latched on to that old theme, and is laying things out with the trowel of a faux reformer. Experts of the weasel word use genteel, soapsud expressions, an effort to be “benign” in a genuine attempt to be callous. And the campaign is being made global, even though the main thrust of any change remains a rich man’s effort (suggestively “Western”) to stomp on the poor. “Turning back the boasts” has become as ubiquitous an expression as Japan’s “sphere of co-prosperity” – every effort will be made to realise it, even if corners are no so much cut as annihilated. After all, as the opposition leader Tony Abbott has termed it, the arrival of refugees by boat to Australia is “a national emergency”.

To that end, Rudd has suggested a true bureaucrat’s formula: stemming the number of boat arrivals can be done through a “three-pronged” shift involving national, regional and global approaches. (Beware any politician who uses terms such as “pronged”.) He has openly told the press corps that the “effectiveness” of the Convention is now under review. The Refugee Review Tribunal has also been instructed to prioritise claims between those who have authentic identity documents and those who either have false documents or do not “co-operate” (Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 18).

In all of this, the darkest of trends emerges. Anyone who believes that inviolable rights, be it a local bill of rights or the so called “international” bill of rights, are the evocations of conscience, are the true conservatives. Such rights are there, not to be flexibly deflected, but to be applied with as much faith as is needed. When the law falls silent, the vicious shall reign.

The saboteurs are the “new” conservatives who believe in radical projects, undertaken with nihilistic enthusiasm. They man the draw bridge and unleash drones against their own citizens. They hold the signatures, electronic or actual, penned on cheap paper and even cheaper promises. They come in the form of such figures as Tony Blair, a supposedly “progressive” politician who was also happy to consider taking the knife to the refugee system. And they have the guns to turn back the boats.

One of the greatest corpses of this project will be the Refugee Convention. The ossuary, in time, will prove a heavily stacked one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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