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Refugees - we’d like to help, but …

By Guy Goodwin-Gill - posted Friday, 3 February 2006

Until 1951 Australia had been something of a bystander in earlier international negotiations on refugees. That year, however, Australia moved to participate more fully in the Conference of Plenipotentiaries which met in Geneva in July to finalise the Convention on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

As a country of immigration, distant from the major sources of refugee displacement of the time, Australia’s interventions reflect a particular perspective. Its continuing relevance may be questionable, but these interventions should not be discarded as merely quaint or time- and situation-specific.

On the contrary, they can provide insight into contemporary attitudes, explain persistent perceptions of the refugee condition, and perhaps even provide guidance on future choices.


The background to these interventions goes back 84 years when the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote to the Council of the League of Nations, calling attention to the plight of some 800,000 Russian refugees still adrift in post-first world war Europe.

The League moved promptly, appointing the Norwegian polar explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, as the first High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen was charged with defining the legal status of refugees; organising their repatriation or “allocation” to potential resettlement countries; and, together with private organisations, providing legal and political protection to Russian refugees no longer enjoying the protection of their own or former government.

Within a year Nansen had proposed and secured agreement on an arrangement to issue identify certificates to Russian refugees. Nansen certificates were increasingly accepted de facto as “passports” to work, self-sufficiency, and integration in countries of first refuge - and then literally as passports and travel documents accepted for onward movement to other states in need of migrant labour.

These initiatives were the beginning of a system of international protection, marking the first formal recognition by states of the need to co-operate in the face of flight. They also marked the recognition of the fact that refugee movements are inescapably international in character.

Nansen’s appointment also marked the first step in a process which was to lead to what is often referred to today as the “international regime of refugee protection”. This system now engages governments and civil society itself, and is oriented in principle towards the goal of durable “solutions” for refugees, whether voluntary return to countries of origin, integration and self-sufficiency in the country of asylum, or resettlement.


Not that the process is, or ever was, one of smooth, unobstructed evolution to the higher goal. The history of state actions and initiatives on refugee protection and solutions is not one of humanitarianism or altruism in another guise, but rather a mixture of self-interest, opportunism, politics, recalcitrance, obstruction, unilateralism, reluctance and resentment.

But it is also leavened from time to time by immense generosity, often from civil society directly, rather than governments; by commitment, perhaps pragmatic, to international institutions; and by the binding force of principle as it slowly emerged into a body of legal rules and standards.

It is also a history of balancing state concerns - the unavoidable necessity of taking decisions in manifestly humanitarian cases and the traditional desire of nation states to preserve their sovereign interests.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
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This article is an edited and abridged version of the first of three lectures on international refugee protection given by Dr Goodwin-Gill in Australia in 2005 for the Kenneth Rivett Orations.

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About the Author

Dr Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is currently a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He was previously the Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford, the Professor of Asylum Law at the University of Amsterdam, and worked for over a decade for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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Related Links
Refugee Council of Australia

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