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The 1951 Refugee Convention: 70 years of life-saving protection

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The 1951 Refugee Convention: 70 years of life-saving protection

28 July 2021 Also available in:
70th anniversary
Refugees from Eastern Europe pictured in a camp in Germany after World War Two. At UNHCR's creation in 1950, an estimated 1.25 million refugees were under its mandate.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a key international treaty establishing the rights of people forced to flee. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says that recommitting to its spirit and fundamental principles is more urgent today than ever.

“The Convention continues to protect the rights of refugees across the world,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Thanks to the Convention, millions of lives have been saved. Seventy years since it was drawn up, it is crucial that the international community defends its principles.”

He expressed alarm at recent attempts by some governments to disregard or circumvent the Convention’s principles, from expulsions and pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers at land and sea borders, to the proposals to forcibly transfer them to third states for processing without proper protection safeguards. 

Speaking 70 years to the day after the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was presented to states for signing, Grandi said the treaty was a crucial component of international human rights law and remained as relevant now as it was when it was drafted and agreed.

“The language of the Convention is clear as to the rights of refugees and remains applicable in the context of contemporary and unprecedented challenges and emergencies – such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” Grandi said.

Both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the more recent Global Compact on Refugees call for international cooperation to find a range of solutions for refugees.

Grandi stressed the need for the international community to uphold the key principles of refugee protection as laid out in the Convention, including the right of someone fleeing persecution not to be sent back into the path of harm or danger.

The 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention comes only a few months after UNHCR itself marked seven decades as the world’s mandated organisation for the protection of the forcibly displaced.


Background notes for editors:

  • In the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, on 14 December 1950, the United Nations published UNHCR’s Statute, setting out the terms of its operations and instructing plenipotentiaries of 26 states to meet in Geneva to finalize the text of the Convention, which they did in July 1951.
  • UNHCR is the guardian of the 1951 Convention, with a unique mandate under international law to supervise its application and to work with states to protect refugees and find durable solutions.
  • The Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which broadened the scope of those in need of international protection, clearly spell out who is a refugee and the kind of protection, other assistance and social rights they are entitled to receive. These twin instruments remain the cornerstone of refugee protection today and have inspired numerous regional treaties and laws, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in Latin America, and the EU’s Common European Asylum System.
  • UNHCR calls on all states to give effect to the principles of refugee law, including the 1951 Convention, through enacting legislation, establishing institutions and adopting policies and practices reflecting its provisions. It further encourages countries which are not contracting states to accede to the Convention – as indeed they continue to do, with the most recent signatory being South Sudan in 2018.
  • The principles of the Convention were reaffirmed in December 2018 by the Global Compact on Refugees, a blueprint for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing. Both the Convention and the Compact recognize that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

To read more about the 1951 Refugee Convention, click here.

To find out more about the Global Compact on Refugees, click here.

For material from UNHCR’s archive on Refugees Media, follow this link (you may need to register to login, which is free).

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