UNHCR Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Applies to all Refugees except Palestinians

Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of human rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, is the centrepiece of international refugee protection today. The Convention entered into force on 22 April 1954, and it has been subject to only one amendment in the form of a 1967 Protocol, which removed the geographic and temporal limits of the 1951 Convention. The 1951 Convention, as a post-Second World War instrument, was originally limited in scope to persons fleeing events occurring before 1 January 1951 and within Europe. The 1967 Protocol removed these limitations and thus gave the Convention universal coverage. It has since been supplemented by refugee and subsidiary protection regimes in several regions, as well as via the progressive development of international human rights law.

The 1951 Convention consolidates previous international instruments relating to refugees and provides the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees at the international level. In contrast to earlier international refugee instruments, which applied to specific groups of refugees, the 1951 Convention endorses a single definition of the term “refugee” in Article 1. The emphasis of this definition is on the protection of persons from political or other forms of persecution. A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The Convention is both a status and rights-based instrument and is underpinned by a number of fundamental principles, most notably non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement. Convention provisions, for example, are to be applied without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. Developments in international human rights law also reinforce the principle that the Convention be applied without discrimination as to sex, age, disability, sexuality, or other prohibited grounds of discrimination. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. The principle of nonrefoulement is so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it. It provides that no one shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.

Finally, the Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to States granting more favourable treatment. Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form. Most States parties to the Convention issue this document, which has become as widely accepted as the former “Nansen passport”, an identity document for refugees devised by the first Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, in 1922.

The Convention does not however apply to all persons who might otherwise satisfy the definition of a refugee in Article 1. In particular, the Convention does not apply to those for whom there are serious reasons for considering that they have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, serious non-political crimes, or are guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. The Convention also does not apply to those refugees who benefit from the protection or assistance of a United Nations agency other than UNHCR, such as refugees from Palestine who fall under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Nor does the Convention apply to those refugees who have a status equivalent to nationals in their country of asylum.

Apart from expanding the definition of a refugee, the Protocol obliges States to comply with the substantive provisions of the 1951 Convention to all persons covered by the refugee definition in Article 1, without any limitation of date. Although related to the Convention in this way, the Protocol is an independent instrument, accession to which is not limited to States parties to the Convention.

Under the Convention and Protocol, there is a particular role for UNHCR. States undertake to cooperate with UNHCR in the exercise of its functions, which are set out in its Statute of 1950 along with a range of other General Assembly resolutions, and, in particular, to facilitate this specific duty of supervising the application of these instruments. By its Statute, UNHCR is tasked with, among others, promoting international instruments for the protection of refugees, and supervising their application.

The fundamental importance and enduring relevance of the Convention and the Protocol is widely recognized. In 2001, States parties issued a Declaration reaffirming their commitment to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and they recognized in particular that the core principle of non-refoulement is embedded in customary international law.(4) Moroever, the General Assembly has frequently called upon States to become parties to these instruments.

Accession has also been recommended by various regional organizations, such as the Council of Europe, the African Union, and the Organization of American States. As UNHCR prepares to commemorate, in 2011, the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, it is hoped that more States will accede to these instruments. Today, there are 147 States Parties to one or both of these instruments.

In view of the increasing recognition of the fundamental significance of the Convention and the Protocol for the protection of refugees and for the establishment of minimum standards for their treatment, it is important that their provisions be known as widely as possible, both by refugees and by all those concerned with refugee problems.

Additional information on the Convention and the Protocol, including accession details, may be obtained from UNHCR, or directly from the UNHCR website at www.unhcr.org.