Lesson plans for ages 15-18 in Human Rights and Refugees: The Right to Asylum


As many as one million people were killed in Rwanda's genocide in 1994 and some two million people fled to neighbouring states. The majority, like these people in Tanzania, eventually returned home.  ©  UNHCR/R.Chalasani, 1996


Refugees have a fundamental right to asylum. This right - to seek and enjoy refuge from persecution - is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14, and is a basic principle of international law. It is a widely respected practice of states and an international obligation.

What sets refugees apart from other people who may be in need of humanitarian aid is their need for international protection. Most people can look to their own government and state institutions to protect their rights and physical security, even if imperfectly- however, refugees cannot. In many cases, they are fleeing in terror from abuses perpetrated by the state. In other instances, they are escaping from oppression that the state is powerless to prevent, because it has lost control of territory or otherwise ceased to function in an effective way. By definition, refugees cannot benefit from the protection of their own government.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has therefore been mandated with the responsibility of ensuring that refugees receive adequate protection from the governments of the countries where they have sought asylum. UNHCR also seeks to ensure that their other basic human rights are properly respected. Most fundamentally, refugees should not be forced back to a place where they may be persecuted. This is the principle known as non-refoulement (from the French refouler, to force back).