History Lesson 6: Refugees: International Law and U.S. Policy

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This lesson looks at international law and U.S. policy on refugees. It tells about the international treaties on refugees, how the United States has responded to refugees since World War II, and current U.S. refugee policy. In the activity, students look at some refugee policies of other countries and decide whether they violate international law on refugees.



Students will be able to:

  • Identify and interpret the meaning of the definition of a refugee under international law.
  • Express a reasoned opinion on whether the United States should remain a party to the international protocol on refugees.
  • Explain the policy of the United States toward refugees from 1950 to 1980.
  • Explain current U.S. policy on refugees.
  • Analyze policies of other countries on refugees to see whether they comply with international law.

Standards Addressed:

National U.S. History Standard 31: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States. II (2) Understands the factors that prompted new immigration in contemporary American society (e.g., new immigration policies after 1965, areas of the world from which most immigrants have come).

California History-Social Science Standard 11.11: Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (1) Discuss the reasons for the nation's changing immigration policy, with emphasis on how the Immigration Act of 1965 and successor acts have transformed American society.

Refugees: International Law and U.S. Policy

The world has always had refugees-people fleeing from their home country because of wars or persecution. During World War II, Jews and other refugees trying to escape from Nazi persecution were often refused admittance into other countries. Following the war, millions of people were displaced from their homelands.

The United Nations took action to alleviate the refugee crisis and try to prevent the refugee tragedies of World War II from ever happening again. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 declares, "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Two years later, the United Nations created the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems. This was the first international government agency to deal with refugees.

In 1951, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This international treaty was designed to protect the refugees from World War II. It did not apply to other refugees. As new conflicts created more refugees in the world, the United Nations added the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967. This treaty extended protection to all refugees.

These treaties defined refugees as people who have fled their home country and who are afraid to return because of "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." According to the agreements, refugees who can reach a "safe country" have the right to be given shelter and granted asylum in that country. Countries signing the treaties agree never to return a refugee to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The United States never signed the first treaty. In 1952, it reaffirmed its commitment to strict immigration quotas (which did not change until 1965). It did pass laws, however, allowing admissions of many refugees from war-torn Europe and from communist countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, many refugees came from Eastern Europe and Cuba.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed and the Senate ratified the Protocol on the Status of Refugees, the international treaty on refugees. In the 1970s, refugees started coming from Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1980, Cuban leader Fidel Castro briefly allowed anyone to leave Cuba who wanted to, and a flood of Cuban refugees arrived in the United States.

Also in 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act. This codified into law the provisions of the international Protocol on the Status of Refugees. It also attempted to regulate the flow of refugees. It gave the president power, after consulting with Congress, to set a number of slots aside each year for refugees. (No cap was put on asylum seekers, but there are usually fewer of them than refugees.) The first year, 50,000 slots were opened for refugees.

United Nations Headquarters

In 1950, the United Nations created the office of U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees, the first international government
agency to deal with refugees. (United Nations Photo)

The requirements for refugee status and asylum are the same under international (and U.S.) law: The person must have a "well-grounded" fear of persecution if he or she returns to the home country. Refugees outside the United States apply for refugee status. Those who have already landed in the United States apply for asylum. Once people have attained asylum or refugee status, they can apply for U.S. permanent resident status after living one year in the United States.

Refugees in Today's World

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 12 million refugees worldwide in 2001. About 4 million of them have fled from Afghanistan. They live in camps in Pakistan and Iran. Almost 200,000 of them came to Pakistan in the year 2001 alone.

Another 6 million people are considered people "of concern." Most of these people are internally displaced. War or conflict has ravaged their countries, and they have fled their homes. But they have not crossed into another country.

The goal of the High Commissioner is to provide ways to keep these people safe until they can return home or until they find a new home in another country. About 1 million refugees returned to their homes in 2001. Unfortunately, the same number fled from other countries. So the number of refugees worldwide remained constant.

Many countries accept refugees on a temporary basis until they can return home or go elsewhere. But only 17 countries in the world take refugees for permanent resettlement. Every year, the United States takes more refugees for resettlement than all the other countries combined. For example, in 2001, the United States accepted about 68,000 refugees. The second highest country, Canada, accepted about 12,000.

In 2001, the president set aside 80,000 slots for refugees, but about 10,000 of these slots remained unfilled. Arrivals fell even lower in 2002, with only about 27,000 arriving for the 70,000 allotted places. Halfway through 2003, the numbers were still dropping, and only about 9,000 had arrived by midyear.

The dramatic drop can be explained by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Increased security means more time must be put into screening refugees before they enter the United States. In addition, now the sponsors of refugees must be screened.

But even before September 11, the number of refugees had been declining. Each year since 1992, the number has fallen. The reason seems to be that in previous years, the United States processed many refugees from a few countries-Cuba, Vietnam, the Soviet Union. Today, the United States takes refugees from more than 60 countries. The cost and time involved in screening them has gone up.

U.N. Convention and Protocol

For Discussion and Writing

  • Why was the Convention on the Status of Refugees adopted? How does it define a refugee?
  • As you interpret the definition of refugee in the convention, do you think it includes persecution based on sex (fear of rape or genital mutilation), sexual orientation, or forced sterilization? Explain. If you think it does not include these types of persecution, should they be added to the convention? Why or why not?
  • What was the policy of the United States toward refugees in the 1950s and '60s? How did the Refugee Act of 1980 change this policy?
  • Why has the number of refugees entering the United States fallen in recent years? Do you think more should be done to fill the refugee quotas each year? Explain. What, if anything, do you think could be done?


Treaty Violations?

In recent years, with millions of refugees in the world, human rights organizations have charged various nations with violating the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The countries, in turn, have denied that their actions violate the international treaties. In this activity, students examine the incidents, determine whether they violate the treaty, and express an opinion on whether these actions should be against international law. They also decide whether the United States should remain a party to the 1967 Protocol.

  1. Divide the class into small groups.
  2. Each group should do the following:
    a. Read the sections of the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in the box above.
    b. Read and discuss the Alleged Violations below.
    c. Determine which article of the treaty is relevant to each of the alleged violations.
    d. Discuss and decide:
    (1) Whether each case violates the convention and protocol.
    (2) Whether the actions of each nation should be against international law.
    (3) Whether you think the United States should remain a party to the international treaty.
    e. Be prepared to report back your decisions and your reasons for them.
  3. Have the groups report back. Discuss and vote on each incident and on whether the United States should remain a party to the protocol.

Alleged Violations

  1. Pakistan and Iran after admitting millions of refugees from neighboring Afghanistan closed their borders to all refugees after September 11, 2001. Did the border closures violate the convention and protocol?
  2. After taking in many refugees from Afghanistan, the Greek government now has its coast guard patrol its shores and prevent ships carrying refugees from entering its waters. Does the policy of turning back refugees in international waters violate the treaties?
  3. Australia, which has a history of admitting many refugees, decided in 1992 that any unauthorized people reaching its shores and claiming asylum would be locked in custody until their claims were settled. Does detaining all asylum seekers violate the international treaties?
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