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Refugee protection and definitions

Definition according to the 1951 Refugee Convention

Article 1:

A person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution 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.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, what their rights are, and the legal obligations of states with respect to them.

Other important regional instruments are:

 the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa and

the 1984 Latin American Cartagena Declaration.

The 1967 Protocol removed the geographical and time limitations written into the original Convention under which, for the most part, only Europeans involved in events occurring before 1 January 1951 could apply for refugee status. As a result it turned the Convention into a truly universal instrument that could benefit refugees everywhere. Three-quarters of the world’s states have signed up to both the 1951 Convention and its Protocol.

The Convention does not provide automatic protection for all time. Many refugees have integrated permanently in their country of asylum, but some stop being a refugee when the basis for their original asylum claim ceases to exist. Voluntary repatriation of refugees to their home country is UNHCR’s ‘preferred’ solution – and indeed is the commonest outcome – but only when conditions make it possible for them to return home safely.

The principle of non-refoulement – the idea that people should not be forced to return to countries where they face persecution – has become part of customary international law and is binding on all states. Therefore no government should expel a person in those circumstances.

Duty bearers:

Host governments are primarily responsible for protecting refugees and the 147 states that have ratified the Convention and/or the Protocol are obliged to carry out its provisions.

UNHCR maintains a ‘watching brief,’ intervening if necessary to ensure refugees are granted asylum and are not forcibly returned to countries where their lives may be in danger. The agency seeks ways to help refugees restart their lives, either through local integration, voluntary return to their homeland or – if that is not possible – through resettlement in ‘third’ countries.

Refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum.

Source: UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention Questions & Answers  September 2007.

For further information read our sections on:

Refugee Children

International Law regarding Refugee Children

Education for Refugee Children