Research event

Does the 1951 Refugee Convention have colonial roots? Postcolonial reading of the convention’s founding

A presentation by Ulrike Krause (Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies). This event is part of the Fundamental Rights Research Colloquium hosted by the Centre for Fundamental Rights.

The founding of the 1951 Refugee Convention has primarily been linked to the Second World War and to the early phase of the Cold War in research. But what role does colonialism play here? This question is at the core of a forthcoming article by Ulrike Krause.

The presented paper complements postcolonial and ignorance studies in order to explore the politicised debates that gave rise to the 1951 Convention. More concretely, through online archival research, it studies positions and discussions of state delegations about the Convention’s refugee definition and ‘colonial clause’ at the founding conference (2–25 July 1951).

Based on the findings, the author argues that the debates rendered the Convention’s founding ‘colonial-ignorant’, with lasting effects. Colonial and imperial states generally dominated debates while colonised ones were excluded, and thus silenced. Despite broad support for the universal refugee definition, several powerful delegations demanded its limitation to Europe. This served their pursuit of geopolitical interests and did not stem from a lack of knowledge about the global scope of forced migration then. Instead, delegations strategically produced and used knowledge and especially ignorance (meaning the construction of issues as irrelevant), which led to the prioritisation of ‘the West’ over ‘the Rest’. The ‘true’ refugee was framed as one in or from Europe, while the ‘Other’ refugees and regions were strategically subordinated and ignored. The colonial ‘Others’ was thus made irrelevant in the creation of ‘international’ refugee law, which complicated protection in the upcoming years and decades. 

Ulrike Krause is Junior Professor for Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) and the Institute for Social Sciences, Osnabrück University as well as affiliated Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Her research interests are in the areas of the global refugee regime, humanitarian refugee protection, conflict displacement nexus, resilience, gender, violence, (post)colonial approaches and knowledge production. Her regional focus is on global developments as well as those in Africa, particularly East Africa. She is a co-founder and co-editor of the German Journal of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies, and board member of the German Network for Forced Migration Studies (Netzwerk Fluchtforschung e.V.).