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State Sovereignty: A hindrance to refugee



By Abu Bakarr Sesay, Jilin University, Changchun city, China.

My main argument in this presentation stems from the hypothesis: The concept of State
Sovereignty is today the biggest Challenge in Refugee protection in the world.

I will try to examine how the concept of sovereignty has affected the international refugee
protection system. To do so, I closely examine the legal documents that provide the normative
and procedural framework of the protection system (such as the 1951 Convention Relating to the
Status of Refugees, various regional agreements, as well as certain human rights documents) and
discuss the legal, political, and moral obligations that these documents instill upon the member
states of the protection system.

In the contemporary international state system the problems of border control and transboundary
flows of refugees are ever relevant to states. Refugee-creating forces such as interstate warfare,
ethnic cleansing, genocide and famine continue to occur with regularity. Thus, states that have a
tradition of being immigrant nations, such as Canada, the United States and Australia, are faced
with the questions of how committed they are to the international system of refugee protection,
and whether or not they are willing to open their borders to allow in a greater influx of foreign
nationals who seek protection.

The past two decades have witnessed a huge climb in the number of official refugees from
fourteen million in 1997 to 15.2 million refugees according to UNHCR 2008 Global Trend
report. This translates into making states, especially those with a history of immigration, face the
question of whether or not they will widen their immigration and refugee policies to allow a
greater influx of both people looking to better themselves economically (so-called economic
immigrants) and people who are looking for protection from the state because their home
government have failed to provide that protection (refugees and asylum seekers).

All states, especially liberal democratic states that have a history of acting with humanitarian
concerns in mind, are in a difficult position in which they have to balance the traditional political
concern for state sovereignty with the humanitarian concern for helping those in need of
protection from persecution.

The refugee system constitutes an international regime and members of this human rights
protection regime (i.e. signatory states to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, regional
agreements, and those states that have enshrined the Convention into their domestic
refugee/asylum policies) thus have their actions restricted considerably by the very fact that they
are members of the regime. They are no longer allowed the full freedom of action and decision-
making afforded to them under the doctrine of sovereignty.

As at present, there are 144 States Parties to the 1951 Convention on the status of Refugees and
the 1967 Protocol, but today we are seeing nations who are signatories to these documents are
turning their backs against these very important documents under the guise of state sovereignty.

My country, Sierra Leone, appended its signature to these documents on the 22 May 1981, and
we believe and respect the principles of these documents, this is why my country has served as
host to thousands if not millions of refugees from neighbouring countries.

Before going further into the core of my presentation, I first want to give a clear definition of
who is a Refugee. According to Article 1"(2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of
Refugees a refugee as any person who:

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his
nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of
that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his formal
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to
return to it.

It was as a result of this very important human rights issue that in 1951 the Office of UNHCR
was established as the principal UN agency concerned with refugees (first as a sub organization
to the General Assembly, and later it had the mandate of a specialized agency). The General
Assembly established UNHCR to provide international protection and to seek permanent
solutions for the problem of refugees.


The doctrine of national sovereignty can be defined as a principle which reserves to each
sovereign state the exclusive right to take any action it thinks fit, provided only that the action
does not interfere with the rights of other states, and is not prohibited by international law on that
or any other ground. Under this definition every sovereign state is free in international law to do
what it wants with its own nationals and territory, as well as to enter into legal relationships with
other sovereign states.

The current notion of state sovereignty was laid down in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648,
which, in relation to states, codified the basic principles of territorial integrity, border
inviolability, and supremacy of the state. Thus, whatever happens within a states boundaries is
under the jurisdiction of that states government. Interference in the domestic affairs of a state is
considered unwarranted and in many cases illegal.

Now with such enormous right given to state to determine who should enter their territorial space
is one major fact that is serving as a hindrance today to the protection of refugees who are
seeking for refuge from persecution or war. States are now taking different restrictive measures
just to ensure that refugees dont create an influx into their boundaries. These restrictive
measures through the excessive power of national sovereignty exercised by states have directly
affected the ability of asylum-seekers and refugee claimants to either enter the safe country in the
first place, or to claim asylum once they have crossed the borders. In this regard, I consider,
States pay lip service to the importance of honouring the right to seek asylum, but in practice
devote significant resources to keep refugees away from their borders.

Border Control

The developed world has used the concept of sovereignty as a defense mechanism against the
influx of refugee and asylum claimants. It is a well-known fact that one of the foundations of
immigration policy, including refugee policy, is the concept of state sovereignty. Indeed,
immigration policy is considered to be sacrosanct to the maintenance of state sovereignty.
State sovereignty is used by states to support their belief that the act of granting asylum is at the
discretion of the state, instead of as a matter of an individuals right to asylum.

The concept of sovereignty is in most cases used to back up restrictive viewpoints on

immigration and refugee policy. Essentially, it is used by virtually all states as an excuse to not
only restricts the flow of normal migrants, but also desperate people in search of safety and
refuge. There are varying degrees of strictness in terms of the application of the concept of
sovereignty in reality (i.e. in terms of refugee policy).

Domestic Policies

The international system of refugee protection also contains member states that attempt to shirk
their responsibilities and duties toward the regime and to refugees themselves. This is done for a
variety of reasons, such as fear of refugee overload, strain on national resources, xenophobia,
racism, or fear of a takeover of refugees that do not mix with the nationals in terms of ethnic
background, race, religion, or culture. It is for these reasons that countries develop ways to
prevent asylum and refuge claims from being made at their borders, or to allow or force claims to
be passed on to other states

One developed country that is shirking its responsibilities is the United States policy towards
Haitian refugees. Between 1981 and 1991 over 22,000 Haitians were interdicted at sea, and out
of those people only 28 were allowed to apply for asylum in the US. UNHCR, along with other
humanitarian organizations and advocacy groups have argued that the US policy of interdiction
and return of Haitian asylum seekers could lead to refoulement, which is prohibited under Article
33 of the 1951 Convention

Pre-entry Measures

Pre-entry measures are the first opportunity for states partner to the international refugee
protection regime to shirk their responsibility of protection. Amongst these available measures,
visa requirements for nationals of refugee-producing states have probably the most negative
effect on asylum claimants and people in search of refuge outside their country of origin.
Seeking asylum in a safe country does not require a claimant to carry a visa, Article 31 of the
1951 Convention states that claimants shall not be restricted from movement or receive penalties
because of entering illegally (i.e. without the proper papers and identification), as long as their
life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1 provided they present themselves
without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
Therefore the imposition of visa requirements on refugee claimants and asylum seekers is in
blatant contradiction with the meaning and purpose of visas.

Many countries have instilled airport transit visas (ATVs) in an effort to stop the entry of refugee
claimants who have entered the country via another country that did not require the person to
carry a visa.

Another measure used is Carrier sanctions. These are fines levied on airlines and shipping
companies on a per capita basis that allow the arrival of passengers who do not carry the
necessary papers. They require pre-boarding documentation checks in both countries of origin
and transit and people who lack the required documentation are prevented from disembarking
and are sent back home. In many countries these people are thereafter detained in centers in
international airports and in some cases denied the right of appeal. States also, in order to
prevent, disrupt, or halt the movement of refugees and asylum seekers across international
borders applied what is called interception. Essentially, interception is meant to create barriers to
protection for refugees and asylum seekers.

Negative Effects of these Restrictive Measures on refugee protection

The international system of refugee protection is changing; countries that have a history of
hosting large numbers of refugees are gradually turning away from their commitment to the
regime. This is due in part to the failure of the international community to share the
responsibility of protecting refugees. All of the measures to prevent access of refugees to safe
countries described above represent a trend of states towards en bloc denials of accesses. The
moral and legal duties of states that are laid out by the international regime of refugee protection
are thus minimized as much as possible, as states use sovereignty as an excuse to commit
themselves to minimum levels of obligation to nationals of refugee-producing states.

The weakening of the refugee protection regime has a vast array of potential effects for its levels
of protection. UNHCR is losing effectiveness as states step away from their commitment. Even
though UNHCRs activities are supposed to be non-political in nature, it is a highly political
actor and is clearly shaped by the interests of major governments UNHCR is often at the
mercy of its donor and host governments. This means that UNHCR will only be effective to the
degree that the most important states in the regime (i.e. the states that make the largest financial
contributions and accept the largest amounts of refugees) remain committed to it, both
financially and ideologically.

On the domestic level, numerous governments have at least to some degree, stepped away from
their commitment to the protection of refugees and have moved in the direction of restricting the
flow of refugees into their countries. Many of these measures are carried out in an effort to
control illegal immigration and asylum-shopping, however, multitudes of bone fida refugees
are being negatively affected and will continue to be affected in the future. If the international
refugee protection regime continues to weaken and lose coherence, the problem of refugee
protection, which affects millions of people across the world each year, will only worsen. The
very aim of the regime, to provide protection to help save millions of lives each year by
providing safe places where displaced persons can turn to seek protection will not be reached. In
sum, the treatment of asylum-seekers everywhere has been marked by exclusion and expulsion
and there exists a worldwide asylum crisis.

What this means for the regime is that its coherence is decreasing; the aims of the regime and the
state behaviour it prescribes increasingly are not being reflected by actual state behaviour. The
interests of the member states are changing as their identities change: It seems likely that states
may incrementally abandon their responsibilities of protection. This is especially likely to occur
if individual states observe that many other states are doing the same, since states identities are
reinforced by what others are doing. Nevertheless, if regime weakening continues to occur, the
refugee problem will only intensify and involve thousands more people each year, in turn
affecting not only refugees themselves, but states and the protection regime as a whole. In the
end, the regimes work is frequently characterized by tension between the national and
international arms of protection, between sovereignty and international responsibility.

In a situation described as the system of international refugee protection in crisis by Gorlick,

states use the aforementioned measures in order to place restrictions on the international
protection regime. This, in turn, has meant that legal protection of refugees is quickly losing
ground, as legislative and inter-state arrangements change and there takes place a pull back
from the legal foundation on which effective protection rests.

I will therefore, end with this quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Editors note: This paper was presented by Abu Bakarr (photo, centre) at a seminar on
Contemporary International Relations Issues organized and sponsored by The Institute of
International Studies, Jilin University with some students from the West Point Cadets Institute in
the United States. Abu is studying for a Masters degree in International Relations.