Protection and safety: a right or a privilege?

Guest blogger Ffion Lloyd writes for Legal Feminist on the Refugee Convention of 1951 and argues that persecution on the basis of sex should be formally recognised within it.

The 1951 Refugee Convention is a United Nations multilateral treaty, currently ratified by 148 countries. The Convention is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, a refugee’s rights and the obligations on member states. The Convention sets out the bases upon which a person is entitled to refugee status: if they have  ‘a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group’. The primary aim of the Convention is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. In its efforts to achieve this aim, the Convention alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), strives to ensure everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in other countries. However, despite these admirable aims, refugee rights are restricted due to the Convention reasons, arguably, being  outdated (as per G S Goodwin-Gill and J McAdam, The Refugee in International Law (3rd edn, Clarendon Press, 2007) 86 – 96), because there is little or no explicit protection from specific abuses that only apply to women. As argued by Charlesworth and Chaiton in The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis “the very nature of international law has made dealing with the structural disadvantages of sex and gender difficult.” 

Historically, the protection of refugees was a matter of discretion dependent on the willingness of individual sovereign states. It included those who did not fall within any major international treaties, but who were deemed to have a valid claim to protection. In the 20th century refugee protection evolved domestically through ad hoc measures applied to new refugee groups, who were originally excluded from the Convention. This represented a positive development in human rights as it was the first of its kind to attempt to protect all refugees. Additionally, as interpretation of the Convention has varied, it has enabled countries to implement a degree of refugee protection alongside domestic laws. Nonetheless, the Convention has had fundamental flaws from its inception. One of the main historical criticisms of the Convention has been its enduring lack of protection of refugee women, who constitute half of all refugees.

Under the Convention, the Convention reasons of ‘social groups’ and ‘political opinions’ lack clarity. The Convention does not refer to sex as a ground for being afforded protection, an omission considered by some to be a failing of the Convention. The significance of this is that women are not expressly protected as falling within a Convention reason, despite  high incidences of female genital mutilation (FGM), human trafficking, forced marriages and rape cases. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” . It is a practice female refugees confront in their countries of origin and is one of the biggest problems facing female refugees.  According to a UNICEF report (2020) 29 countries allow FGM and it is claimed 52 million females alive today have undergone FGM. However, the number of women and girls who have undergone FGM could be substantially higher, as reliable worldwide data is not available. However, because sex is not a Convention reason to recognise persecution, protection from this specific abuse is inconsistent under the Convention, even though it is recognised as a violation of  female human rights, including freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as right to health. FGM is a crime in many countries including the USA, the UK and South Africa where it is recognised as  a form of violence against females. It causes long lasting physical and psychological harm and is in direct opposition to  basic human rights

This was demonstrated in the case of Fornah v. Secretary of State for the Home Department in which Fornah claimed she could not return to Sierra Leone because she would face gender-based persecution by being forced to endure FGM. Consequently, the UK House of Lords agreed “intact” women in Sierra Leone, who had not undergone FGM, constituted a particular social group, for the purposes of the 1951 Convention. However, because sex is not a Convention reason, each FGM claim will need to be assessed on its own, to establish whether women facing FGM in that particular country, at a particular age, from a particular tribe or background, constitute a ‘particular social group.’ If not, then the woman is not protected under the Refugee Convention although she may be able to access alternative humanitarian protection.   Consequently, in my view, the Convention lags behind current global affairs because of the inconsistency of interpretation.

Baroness Hale stated in the case of Fornah that if the refugee definition was properly interpreted, it “can encompass gender-related claims.” On the other hand, despite the Convention allowing room for interpretation, under French refugee law, women who have already experienced FGM are not entitled to any form of protection. A third of the claims for refugee status in France have been made by females and of 36,720 applicants only 4,713 were granted refuge. Under French refugee law, the experience of past FGM is not regarded as constituting persecution, despite the risk of further FGM abuses. The assumed justification for this is that the mutilation is a single act that will not be repeated in the future and will not lead to further persecution. This line of reasoning was rejected in the USA in the case of Mukasey, in which the Board of Immigration Appeals held a woman who has been subject to FGM can be cut a second time. Despite this finding, France has not updated its refugee law. 

The UK only recently had its first ever successful criminal trial on FGM. In February 2019 a mother was sentenced to 14 years in prison for performing FGM on her 3-year-old daughter. This case demonstrates, although countries are attempting to protect vulnerable women and girls, it is clear more needs to be done. Despite this case being a success for female equality and basic human rights, it is unsettling that the UK only recently successfully protected its most vulnerable females. This case highlights how slow the law is on offering protection to females, specifically female refugees. 

Forced marriage has been acknowledged (in the phrase used by UNHCR) as a gender‐related form of persecution in some jurisdictions. Currently 117 countries allow forced marriages. Canada has accepted gender‐based grounds for refugee claims since the mid 1990’s, which includes forced marriage. Additionally, in TB (PSG – Women) Iran v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Immigration Appeal Tribunal held “young Iranian women who refuse to enter into arranged marriages” constituted a particular social group. Consequently, the appellant’s claim for asylum was upheld by the Immigration Appeal Tribunal as she would be persecuted if returned to Iran. Despite the Refugee Convention being written in 1951, certain countries have interpreted it to protect female refugees from specific abuses, such as forced marriages, highlighting it is possible to protect female refugees from this type of persecution. Nevertheless, despite the UK and other countries achieving great strides in human rights and acknowledging the specific abuses female refugees are subject to, it is becoming more apparent that more needs to be done. It is striking, that even post Shah and Islam UK, there is still no particular social group for women fleeing forced marriage, as the current Convention stands.  

One of the main challenges facing the protection of female refugees from forced marriages is the domestic law and customs of the countries where forced marriage is legal. It is particularly notable that women’s education levels are a high factor when it comes to the forced marriages of female refugees. Educated women are better able to recognise their experiences as abuse, while less educated women may accept it as normality. A study in 2008 highlighted urban and highly educated women in Lebanon were ‘somewhat less constrained’ by social customs and ‘would not be subject to forced marriage, and if she were, could evade it.’ Consequently, the education of female refugees is paramount in reducing the level of risk they may face of specific abuses.

In recent years, international organizations have paid increasing attention to a particular problem affecting female refugees, human trafficking. Female refugees need more international protection from human trafficking. While not all victims of trafficking are refugees, depending on the circumstances, many victims of human trafficking qualify for refugee status. Female refugees are at particular risk of being victims of human trafficking. This is due to many factors, including their vulnerable status, the losses they have experienced and their displacement geographically. According to the UNHCR, trafficking risks for female refugees are increasing worldwide. Under the current grounds of persecution of the Convention, protection for female refugees from human trafficking is non-existent, meaning female refugees must depend on the domestic laws of the country they are in. 

In times of conflict and chaos, female refugees are often pressured into work where they are exploited and abused. Prostitution is often one of the only ways female refugees can make money for their families. However, the voluntary nature of such work is questionable when there is no alternative source of income – and indeed exploitation of a position of vulnerability is recognised within the Palermo Protocol as a form of coercion. Individuals are at serious risk of falling into the hands of sex traffickers. This is compounded by the lack of protection for female refugees under the current grounds for persecution, forcing many female refugees into extremely dangerous situations

To conclude, at the time of its establishment, the 1951 Refugee Convention made great strides in human rights, but now, as the world changes, the Convention’s deliberate gender-blindness is an impediment, rather than an asset, to justice for female refugees. As illustrated above, it is possible for countries to interpret the Convention so that ‘particular social group’ extends to protection against specific abuses that only happen to female refugees, but this relies on interpretation. In my view, interpretation is not enough: protection for female refugees should be a codified right, not a privilege at the discretion of the member state’s interpretation. 

The current situation  leaves room for instability and uncertainty, and uncertainty gives rise in turn to grey areas where female refugees are protected in some countries and not in others. To reiterate the words of Charlesworth and Chaiton “The realities of women’s lives do not fit easily into the concepts and categories of international law”. Perhaps it is time that those concepts and categories are re-moulded to allow them to do so. An amended Refugee Convention is overdue, as the unique needs of female refugees must be protected, and the empowerment and the equality of females supported. 

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