The 1951 Refugee Convention
They define the term 'refugee' and outline their rights and the international standards of treatment for their protection.
They are the cornerstone of refugee protection and the key legal documents that form the basis of UNHCR’s work.
The 1951 Convention provides the internationally recognized definition of a refugee and outlines the legal protection, rights and assistance a refugee is entitled to receive.
UNHCR serves as the ‘guardian’ of these documents. We also help governments translate them into national laws to ensure refugees are protected and can excise their rights.
Core principles of the 1951 Convention
The core principle of the 1951 Convention is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
The document outlines the basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, including the right to housing, work and education while displaced so they can lead a dignified and independent life. 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.
In addition, it details the legal obligations of the States that are party to one or both of these instruments.
View and download the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol
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History of the 1951 Refugee Convention
In the aftermath of the First World War (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 recognized refugees of the 20th century. Their numbers increased dramatically during and after the Second World War (1939-1945), as millions more were forcibly displaced.
In response, the international community steadily assembled a set of guidelines, laws and conventions aimed at protecting the basic human rights and treatment of people forced to flee conflict and persecution.
The process, which began under the League of Nations in 1921, culminated in the 1951 Convention which consolidated and expanded on previous international instruments relating to refugees and continues to provide the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees at the international level.
What is the difference between the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol?
In July 1951, a diplomatic conference in Geneva adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It has since been subject to only one amendment in the form of the 1967 Protocol.
Initially, the 1951 Convention was essentially limited to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War: The document contains the words “events occurring before 1 January 1951” which are widely understood to mean “events occurring in Europe” prior to that date.
The 1967 Protocol, adopted 4 October 1967, removes these geographic and time-based limitations, expanding the Convention to apply universally and protect all persons fleeing conflict and persecution.
Which countries are party to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol?
To date, 146 countries are party to the 1951 Convention, and 147 to the 1967 Protocol
View the list of States that have acceded below.
What is the definition of a refugee?
Article 1 of the 1951 Convention defines a refugee as someone who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of [their] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail [themself] of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of [their] former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."
Regional refugee instruments complement the 1951 Convention and have built upon its definition, by referencing a number of ‘objective’ circumstances compelling refugees to flee their countries of origin. For example, the definition outlined in the 1969 OAU (Organization of African Unity) Refugee Convention includes ‘external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order’ (Article 1 (2)). The 1984 Cartagena Declaration includes ‘generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’ (paragraph III (3)).
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, based on discrimination, or due to conflict, violence and other circumstances seriously disturbing public order – individuals may suffer such serious violations of their human rights that they must 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.
Countries that have signed the 1951 Convention are obliged to protect refugees on their territory and treat them according to internationally recognized standards.
What rights do refugees have under the 1951 Convention?
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 they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
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 irregular entry into the territory of a contracting State (Article 31)
- The right to non-discrimination (Articles 3 and 5)
- The right to decent work (Articles 17 to 19 and 24)
- The right to housing, land and property, including intellectual property (Articles 13, 14 and 21)
- The right to education (Article 22)
- The right to freedom of religion (Article 4)
- The right to access to justice (Article 16)
- The right to freedom of movement within the territory (Article 26 and Article 31 (2))
- The right to be issued civil, identity and travel documents (Articles 12, 27 and 28)
- The right to social protection (Articles 23 and 24 (2-4)).
Does a refugee also have obligations?
Yes. Refugees are required to abide by the laws and regulations of their country of asylum and respect measures taken for the maintenance of public order.
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, or a crime against humanity;
- they have committed a serious non-political crime outside their country of refuge prior to the admission to that country as a refugee; or
- they are guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
How can States sign on to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol?
A State can accede to the 1951 Convention at any time by depositing an instrument of accession with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The instrument of accession must be signed by the Foreign Minister or the Head of State or Government.
States wishing to accede to the 1967 Protocol should follow the same procedure. States may also accede simultaneously to both the Convention and Protocol, and most States choose to do so.
Key documents and decisions
Records of the 1951 Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
- The Refugee Convention, 1951: The Travaux préparatoires analysed with a Commentary by Dr. Paul Weis
- Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons: Summary Record of the Thirty-second Meeting
30 November 1951
View the list of States that have acceded to one or both the 1951 Convention and its Protocol.
- Why and how to accede to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (pdf).
- Why and how to withdraw reservations to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (pdf).
- Read the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UNHCR joint handbook for parliamentarians on refugee protection and building state asylum systems.
Learn more about UNHCR
Learn more about our work today and how we protect people forced to flee their homes.