Blog post by Naureen Rahim, PhD candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo

There are currently over 27.1 million refugees globally, and 83 percent of them are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. A good number of refugee hosting states have not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. At present, none of the South Asian countries – except Afghanistan, in 2005 – has signed the 1951 Convention. Among them is Bangladesh, one of the world’s major refugee hosting countries. Despite Bangladesh being an important host state, few studies have examined its relation to international refugee law. In this blogpost, I explore Bangladesh’s position as a non-signatory state to the 1951 Convention.

A shared claim among South Asian states is that the 1951 Convention is too Eurocentric (See Madokoro 2022, Ramasubramanyam 2018 and Sen 2003). For this reason, many South Asian states outright reject the Convention [1]. Relatedly, scholars also point to a bias in refugee studies, with Western scholars focusing primarily on accession to the 1951 Convention while ignoring the reality of the region’s record – which, as Chimni (at p.16) has noted, ‘is (in relative terms) no poorer than the current record of the rich North with its formal commitment to the Convention.’ How valid are these arguments to the case of Bangladesh? This is one of the key questions that I am exploring in my current PhD research, conducted as part of the BEYOND project at the University of Oslo.

Bangladesh has a long history of forced displacement. In 1971 military operations by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan (contemporary Bangladesh) resulted in millions of Bengalis seeking refuge in neighboring India. In five significant phases, in 1978, 1991-92, 2012, 2016, 2017 and onwards, Bangladesh has also received a total of 10,38,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Commentators have suggested that Bangladesh’s hospitality towards hosting these refugees has to do with the Bangladeshi historical experience of refugeehood, war and famine, which has affected the national psyche.

To date, not many studies have examined in any detail the relationship between Bangladesh and the international refugee regime more generally, or the approach of Bangladesh to the 1951 Convention more specifically. That said, there are many ways in which Bangladesh interacts with international refugee law. The Bangladeshi courts have engaged with the 1951 Convention. It was directly referenced by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court in the case (RMMRU v Government of Bangladesh, 2017) involving a Myanmar national. In this case, the Court observed that, ‘Though Bangladesh has not formally ratified the [Refugee] Convention …[t]his Convention by now has become a part of customary international law which is binding upon all the countries of the world, irrespective of whether a particular country has formally signed, acceded to or ratified the Convention acceded to or ratified the Convention or not’[2].

Importantly, the Bangladeshi government has also permitted UNHCR to operate on its territory. One of UNHCR’s main tasks is to promote accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention. In the case of Bangladesh, UNHCR has argued that:

Accession would:

1) [provide] a more precise basis for the Government of Bangladesh to provide refugees with international protection and allow the Government to deal with issues related to asylum in a structured manner

2) facilitate the mobilization of international support, to alleviate the burden and responsibility primarily shouldered by Bangladesh in hosting refugees and,

3) formally recognize Bangladesh’s decades-long hospitality and solidarity towards refugees from Myanmar and underline the importance attached by Bangladesh to cooperate with the international community in efforts to finding solutions for refugees.

While the main responsibility for refugees in Bangladesh is with the government, UNHCR is invariably playing an operational role when it comes to protecting and assisting refugees (See Rahman 2018, at p.77). The organization has also been involved, together with the government, in the resettlement- and relocation policy making for the Rohingya refugees.

As part of its mandate in promoting the 1951 Convention and its principles, UNHCR also regularly provides government officials and humanitarian staff with capacity development training on a range of issues relating to the protection of refugees. UNHCR in Bangladesh also works with lawyers from partner organizations and has trained paralegal refugee volunteers to identify and refer refugees in need of legal aid. All these activities reflect UNHCR’s role as an important refugee norm entrepreneur in Bangladesh.

In 1995, Bangladesh became a member of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme (hereinafter, ExCom). It regularly sends representatives to the ExCom meetings, and this indicates Bangladesh’s particular interest and great commitment to refugee matters. ExCom is indeed an interesting space to observe, as it is the only specialized multilateral forum at the international level that contributes to developing international standards relating to refugees (See Fresia 2014 at p.515). In my further work, I intend to explore how Bangladesh is socialized into the international refugee regime in this space, but also how Bangladesh itself influences the development of refugee law.

Bangladesh has also participated in other similar high-level meetings during which the principles of the 1951 Convention have been reiterated. For instance, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, Bangladesh – as one of the conference attendees – participated in issuing a Ministerial Communiqué that reaffirmed the Convention’s ‘enduring value and relevance in the twenty-first century’.

Another interesting example is the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), stemming from the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, wherein all 193 member states agreed that there should be a shared international responsibility to support. While the GCR posits a ‘catalytic role’ for UNHCR, the agency’s unusual position in Bangladesh limits its ability to play a leadership role and push conversations forward. There is almost no literature on the local government officials and civil society organizations perceptions and understandings of the GCR.

Scholarship has argued that the GCR has not been proactively applied in Bangladesh more extensively because of the specific and complex dynamics of the crisis and weaknesses in the Compact itself. In the absence of clear guidance, contrasting opinions around the GCR’s applicability in Bangladesh pose a significant constraint for all actors. Recent studies nonetheless highlight the ways in which some of the GCR principles are indirectly being considered or applied in Bangladesh without being explicitly discussed as ‘implementing the GCR’. However, a more detailed study on the GCR’s application in Bangladesh is needed.

Bangladesh, despite being a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has in several ways tried to uphold the refugee norms so far. Bangladesh’s refugee policies and narratives are excellent areas in which to analyze non-signatory states’s involvement in the international refugee regime. Furthermore, it is also interesting to observe Bangladesh’s involvement in international fora on refugee and migration, to understand how this country from the Global South is developing international refugee law through its local practices.

[1] RMMRU, ‘Towards National Refugee Laws in South Asia’ C R Abrar and Shahdeen Malik (eds) (Dhaka 2000), at p.22.

[2] Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) v. Government of Bangladesh, Writ petition no. 10504 of 2016, Bangladesh: Supreme Court (31 May 2017), at para 9-10.

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