A summary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Its 1967 Protocol

Reference: UN High Commissioner for Refugees

A PERSONAL APPEAL FROM THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES

Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol help protect them. They clarify the rights of refugees and the obligations of the 148 States that are party to one or both of these instruments. Universal accession to the Refugee Convention is a valid and achievable goal. In this anniversary year of the Convention, I appeal to all  non-signatory States to accede to it and pledge the full support of my Office to governments to help implement its provisions.

António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

THE LEGAL FRAME WORK FOR PROTECTING REFUGEES

In the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), millions of people fled their homelands in search of refuge. Governments responded by drawing up a set of international agreements to provide travel documents for these people who were, effectively, the first refugees of the 20th century. Their numbers increased dramatically during and after World War II (1939-1945), as millions more were forcibly displaced, deported and/or resettled.

Throughout the 20th century, the international community steadily assembled a set of guidelines, laws and conventions to ensure the adequate treatment of refugees and protect their human rights. The process began under the League of Nations in 1921. In July 1951, a diplomatic conference in Geneva adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (‘1951 Convention’), which was later amended by the 1967 Protocol. These documents clearly spell out who is a refugee and the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights a refugee is entitled to receive. It also defines a refugee’s obligations to host countries and specifies certain categories of people, such as war criminals, who do not qualify for refugee status. Initially, the 1951 Convention was more or less limited to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of World War II, but the 1967 Protocol expanded its scope as the problem of displacement spread around the world.

These instruments have also helped inspire important regional instruments such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in Latin America and the development of a common asylum system in the European Union. Today, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol together remain the cornerstone of refugee protection, and their provisions are as relevant now as when they were drafted.

WHY DO REFUGEES NEED PROTECTION?

States are responsible for protecting the fundamental human rights of their citizens. When they are unable or unwilling to do so — often for political reasons or based on discrimination — individuals may suffer such serious violations of their human rights that they have to leave their homes, their families and their communities to find sanctuary in another country. Since, by definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments, the international community steps in to ensure they are safe and protected.

IS THE 1951 CONVENTION STILL RELEVANT IN TODAY’S WORLD?

The realities of conflict, violence and persecution continue to cause displacement. Refugee protection remains urgently needed by those forced to leave their countries. The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the only global legal instruments explicitly covering the most important aspects of a refugee’s life. According to their provisions, refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals. The 1951 Convention also recognizes the international scope of the refugee problem and the importance of international solidarity and cooperation in trying to resolve them.

The 1951 Convention has shown remarkable resilience over the last 60 years as the nature of conflict as well as patterns of migration have changed. The international system of refugee protection has helped to protect millions of people in a wide variety of situations. As long as people continue to be persecuted, there will be a need for the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

PROTECTING REFUGEES WITH THE 1951 CONVENTION

WHO DOES THE 1951 CONVENTION PROTECT?
The 1951 Convention protects refugees. It defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution (see Article 1A(2)).

People who fulfill this definition are entitled to the rights and bound by the duties contained in the 1951 Convention.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A REFUGEE AND A MIGRANT?
Refugees are forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and because they lack the protection of their own country.

A migrant, in comparison, may leave his or her country for many reasons that are not related to persecution, such as for the purposes of employment, family reunification or study. A migrant continues to enjoy the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad.

IS REFUGEE PROTECTION PERMANENT?
The protection provided under the 1951 Convention is not automatically permanent.

A person may no longer be a refugee when the basis for his or her refugee status ceases to exist. This may occur when, for example, refugees voluntarily repatriate to their home countries once the situation their permits such return. It may also occur when refugees integrate or become naturalized in their host countries and stay permanently.

CAN SOMEONE BE EXCLUDED FROM REFUGEE PROTECTION?
Yes. The 1951 Convention only protects persons who meet the criteria for refugee status. Certain categories of people are considered not to deserve refugee protection and should be excluded from such protection.

This includes persons for whom there are serious reasons to suspect that:

  • they have committed a crime against peace, a war crime, a crime against humanity or a serious non-political crime outside their country of refuge; or 
  • they are guilty of acts contrary to the purposes or principles of the United Nations.

WHAT RIGHTS DO REFUGEES HAVE UNDER THE 1951 CONVENTION?

The 1951 Convention contains a number of rights and also highlights the obligations of refugees towards their host country. The cornerstone of the 1951 Convention is the principle of non-refoulement contained in Article 33. According to this principle, a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom. This protection may not be claimed by refugees who are reasonably regarded as a danger to the security of the country, or having been convicted of a particularly serious crime, are considered a danger to the community.

Other rights contained in the 1951 Convention include:

  • The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions (Article 32);
  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State (Article 31);
  • The right to work (Articles 17 to 19)
  • The right to housing (Article 21);
  • The right to education (Article 22);
  • The right to public relief and assistance (Article 23);
  • The right to freedom of religion (Article 4);
  • The right to access the courts (Article 16);
  • The right to freedom of movement within the territory (Article 26); and
  • The right to be issued identity and travel documents (Articles 27 and 28).

Some basic rights, including the right to be protected from refoulement, apply to all refugees. A refugee becomes entitled to other rights the longer they remain in the host country, which is based on the recognition that the longer they remain as refugees, the more rights they need.

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