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Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 561-563

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Book Review

Refugee Rights and Realities:
Evolving International Concepts and Regimes

Refugee Rights and Realities: Evolving International Concepts and Regimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Frances Nicholson & Patrick Twomey ed., 1999) pp. xxix-378, Index.

Refugees at the end of 2001 are front and center in relation to a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. But they have been an important feature in many settings over the past decade. During this period, the international community has been willing to look inside states and to try to deal with the proximate causes of forced migration, a trend now underscored by the campaign against international terrorism that followed horrific terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001. Such an interventionist approach was unthinkable during the Cold War when it might have invited retaliation and the escalation of that bipolar confrontation.

More broadly, now that the East-West confrontation has largely subsided, states often seek to contain unwanted population movements, rather than communist ideology. Refugees are emblematic of these new political trends and present the issues in the most compelling way: with their flesh and blood.

The title of this multi-author edited volume, Refugee Rights and Realities, by Frances Nicholson and Patrick Twomey, suggests a troubling juxtaposition. Are the rights of refugees not real? Or is the reality of refugees arrangements bereft of a sense of right? Nineteen separately authored essays and an introduction, derived from papers presented in late 1996 at the University of Nottingham, seek to reconcile these points and explore aspects of the new realities pertaining to refugees and displaced persons.

The inquiry begins with a group of essays which examine the refugee definition. The UN refugee treaties define a refugee as a person who is outside of his or her home country, and who has a well-founded fear of persecution upon return on account of "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion . . . ." 1 The refugee definition is the customary starting point for virtually every discussion of international refugee law, and the group of essays devoted to this topic focus on modes of analysis and interpretation as well as the trend to expand coverage under the evolving refugee regime, comprising international, regional, and national arrangements. The basic insight of this multi-faceted examination is one that has long been known to both analysts and policy makers—the UN treaty definition is not adequate to meet today's realities.

But coverage and relevance aside, how refugee policy is organized is increasingly a focus of attention by commentators. The next section of this collection thus addresses the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the specialized UN agency that was established in 1950 to oversee the application of the UN refugee treaties. 2 UNHCR has become much more over the past decade, evolving into [End Page 561] something akin to the humanitarian branch of the United Nations, particularly under the pressure of situations such as the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This trend is one of the reasons that UNHCR has been so prominent in public discussions, both because it has sought to address concerns of donor governments as well as because of the worries harbored by refugee lawyers and advocates who believe that UNHCR's focus on humanitarian assistance has prompted it to downplay its legal mandate to secure individual refugee protection. This thesis is persuasively presented by Guy Goodwin-Gill's contribution in this compilation.

The most recent crucible in which this dilemma is playing out is Afghanistan, where UNHCR is wrestling with whether to become involved with the nearly one million persons who are internally displaced in that country. Should UNHCR confine its protection to the 3.5 million refugees who currently reside, some now for many years, in Iran and Pakistan? If the agency begins to work with the internally displaced, will it undermine its credibility to advocate the opening of borders to asylum seekers? Iran and Pakistan had closed their borders even before the terrorist attacks in the United States and the ensuing bombing...


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