The landmark document that underpins our work
The process of developing a body of international law, conventions and guidelines to protect refugees began in the early 20th century under the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. It culminated on 28 July 1951, when a special UN conference approved the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document of today’s international refugee protection. The Convention defines who is a refugee and the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights refugees should receive from the states that have signed up to it. A key provision of the Convention makes clear that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution. The Convention also defines refugees’ obligations towards their host government and spells out that certain categories of people such as war criminals, shall not qualify for refugee status.
The 1951 Refugee Convention recognized the international scope of refugee crises and the need for international cooperation and responsibility sharing among states.
Initially, the 1951 Convention was more or less limited to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of World War II. The 1967 Protocol expanded its scope and removed its geographical and temporal restrictions, turning the Convention into a truly universal instrument, as the problem of displacement has spread around the world.
The 1951 Convention is not designed to tackle the root causes of people’s flight: human rights violations, political or armed conflict in their home country. It was conceptualized to alleviate the consequences of these problems by offering victims a degree of international legal protection and other assistance and eventually help them begin a new life.
Together with its 1967 Protocol, the 1951 Convention has also inspired important regional refugee protection instruments such as the Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention of 1969 and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on refugees in Latin America.