Sixty years ago this week, the nations of the world enshrined in international law the right of those persecuted in their homeland to seek safety in another country. The Second World War left an estimated 30 million people uprooted.
The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provided the first, universal definition of a refugee. It was grounded in Article 14 of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, among the chief architects of which was the French-Jewish human rights campaigner, Rene Cassin. Article 14 recognises the right of persons to seek asylum.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, drafted by representatives of nation states and organisations including the World Jewish Congress, remains the cornerstone of international refugee protection today, defining not only who is a refugee but also his or her rights and legal obligations. Though it doesn't cover the range of reasons that might compel people to seek asylum, its symbolic value today is still nevertheless huge and needs protecting.
The Convention defines a refugee as a person who "owing to a 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".
The 1951 Convention was originally limited to persons fleeing from events in Europe that occurred before January 1951. This geographical limitation was removed in 1957. Today, its areas of concern know no boundaries.
This 60th anniversary should be a time for pride and celebration but sadly the issue of asylum has become a political football. Refugees and asylum seekers come here trying to put their world back together but too often are vilified in the media and by politicians. And, because of the current financial squeeze on local authorities with libraries having to vie with services for the elderly, to even suggest that asylum seekers should have a share of that pot invites derision.
Although the number of asylum seekers has drastically decreased, public perceptions continue to be characterised by wild over-estimation. A recent poll carried out for the Refugee Council found that half of the people interviewed thought that more than 100,000 refugees a year are granted asylum in the UK. The real number? Just 4,175 people in 2009 and 3,480 in 2010 acquired refugee status.
On a more positive note, 82 per cent of those polled believe that protecting the most vulnerable is a core British value and 67 per cent are sympathetic to refugees coming to Britain.
What about us? Do we see concern for refugees as a core Jewish value? Do we not have a special responsibility to rehabilitate the very notion of asylum? When asylum is denigrated, our history, too, is denigrated.
For over 35 years, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality has provided a Jewish voice on race and asylum issues. A current project, No Way to Live, campaigns for asylum seekers to be allowed to work if they have been waiting for more than six months for their claim to be decided, and if their claims for asylum have been rejected but they are unable to return home through no fault of their own.
Allowing asylum seekers this right reduces the burden on the taxpayer, provides asylum seekers with a route out of poverty, avoids leaving them dependent on charity or statutory support and helps the long-term integration of those who are eventually allowed to stay. This means they will be in a better situation to make their contribution to British society, like the many refugees before them.
To support our campaign we have produced a series of petitions; one for rabbis, one for Jewish employers and most recently, one for the general Jewish community. We are aiming to get 1,000 signatures and we are well on our way. The petition can be signed online at www.jcore.org.uk/nowaytolive.php
It is unlikely that there will ever cease to be refugees. But we do have power to ensure that they are treated with dignity and fairness.