Frequently asked questions about the 1951 Refugee Convention
Why is the Convention important?
It was the first truly international agreement covering the most fundamental aspects of a refugee's life. It spelled out a set of basic human rights which should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and in many cases those of citizens of that state. It recognized the international scope of refugee crises and the necessity of international cooperation, including burden-sharing among states, in tackling the problem.
What is contained in the 1951 Convention?
It defines what the term 'refugee' means. It outlines a refugee's rights including such things as freedom of religion and movement, the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents, but it also underscores a refugee's obligations to a host government. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned, or refouled, to a country where he or she fears persecution. It also spells out people or groups of people who are not covered by the Convention.
What is contained in the 1967 Protocol?
It removes the geographical and time limitations written into the original Convention under which mainly Europeans involved in events occurring before 1 January 1951, could apply for refugee status.
Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
Governments are responsible for enforcing a country's laws. When they are unable or unwilling to do so, often during a conflict or civil unrest, people whose basic human rights are threatened flee their homes, often to another country, where they may be classed as refugees and be guaranteed basic rights.
Host governments are primarily responsible for protecting refugees and the 140 parties to the Convention and/or the Protocol are obliged to carry out its provisions. UNHCR maintains a 'watching brief', intervening if necessary to ensure bona fide 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.
Is the Convention still relevant for the new millennium?
Yes. It was originally adopted to deal with the aftermath of World War II in Europe and growing East-West political tensions. But though the nature of conflict and migration patterns have changed in the intervening decades, the Convention has proved remarkably resilient in helping to protect an estimated 50 million people in all types of situations. As long as persecution of individuals and groups persists, there will be a need for the Convention.
Is the Convention meant to regulate migratory movements?
No. Millions of 'economic' and other migrants have taken advantage of improved communications in the last few decades to seek new lives in other, mainly western, countries. However, they should not be confused, as they sometimes are, with bona fide refugees who are fleeing life-threatening persecution and not merely economic hardship. Modern migratory patterns can be extremely complex and contain a mix of economic migrants, genuine refugees and others. Governments face a daunting task in separating the various groupings and treating genuine refugees in the appropriate manner - through established and fair asylum procedures.
How are refugees and economic migrants different?
An economic migrant normally leaves a country voluntarily to seek a better life. Should he or she elect to return home they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees flee because of the threat of persecution and cannot return safely to their homes in the circumstances then prevailing.
Does the Convention cover internally displaced persons?
Not specifically. Refugees are people who have crossed an international border into a second country seeking sanctuary. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) may have fled for similar reasons, but remain within their own territory and thus are still subject to the laws of that state. In specific crises, UNHCR assists several million, but not all of the estimated 20-25 million IDPs worldwide. There is widespread international debate currently underway on how this group of uprooted people can be better protected and by whom.
Can the Convention resolve refugee problems?
People become refugees, either on an individual basis or as part of a mass exodus, because of political, religious, military and other problems in their home country. The Convention was not designed to tackle these root causes, but rather to alleviate their consequences by offering victims a degree of international legal protection and other assistance and eventually to help them begin their lives anew. Protection can contribute to an overall solution, but as the number of refugees increased dramatically in recent decades, it has become clear that humanitarian work cannot act as a substitute for political action in avoiding or solving future crises.
What obligations does a refugee have?
Refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum.
Is a Convention signatory required to give permanent asylum to all refugees?
The Convention does not provide automatic or permanent protection. There will be situations where refugees will integrate permanently in their country of asylum, but alternatively a person may cease to be a refugee when the basis for his or her refugee status ceases to exist. Voluntary repatriation of refugees to their country of origin is UNHCR's 'preferred' solution, but only when conditions in that state permit their safe return.
Who is not covered by the Convention?
Persons who have committed crimes against peace, a war crime, crimes against humanity or a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge.
A refugee is a civilian. Former soldiers may qualify, for instance, but a person who continues to take part in military activities cannot be considered for asylum.
Can non-Convention countries refuse to admit would-be refugees?
The principle of non-refoulement - the forcible return of people to countries where they face persecution - is part of customary international law and is binding on all states. Therefore no government should expel a person in those circumstances.
Who or what is an 'agent of persecution'?
This refers to a person or organization - governments, rebels or other groups - which force people to flee their homes. The origin of the persecution, however, should not be decisive in determining whether a person is eligible for refugee status. What is important is whether a person deserves international protection because it is not available in the country of origin.
What is 'temporary protection'?
Nations at times offer 'temporary protection' when they face a sudden mass influx of people, as happened during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and their regular asylum systems would be overwhelmed. In such circumstances people can be speedily admitted to safe countries, but without any guarantee of permanent asylum. Thus 'temporary protection' can work to the advantage of both governments and asylum seekers in specific circumstances. But it only complements and does not substitute for the wider protection measures, including refugee asylum, offered by the Convention.
Are some countries, such as those in Europe, being swamped by asylum seekers?
Countries around the world, including some in Europe, believe they are being overwhelmed by asylum seekers. And while it is true that numbers have increased inexorably in the last few decades in many areas, the concerns of individual states are all relative. The bottom line is that some nations in Africa and Asia - states with far fewer economic resources than industrialized countries - sometimes host larger numbers of refugees for far longer periods of time.